WASHINGTON — The GOP-controlled Senate gave an election-year endorsement to President Bush's Iraq policy on Thursday, soundly rejecting Democratic demands to withdraw troops from the 3-year-old war that has grown increasingly unpopular.
Words were heated on both sides, reflecting rising emotions on the war.
Vice President Dick Cheney criticized the Democrats' position, saying on CNN, "Absolutely the worst possible thing we could do at this point would be to validate and encourage the terrorists by doing exactly what they want us to do, which is to leave."
But Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said, "Demanding a change of course is not irresponsible. It's not unpatriotic. It is the right thing to do." He criticized Bush and Republicans in Congress as being "content with no plan and no end in sight."
The administration has repeatedly said that U.S. troops will stay in Iraq until Iraqi security forces can defend the country against a lethal insurgency that rose up after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.
Democrats’ proposals fail
In back-to-back votes, the Senate agreed with the president and turned back two Democratic proposals to begin withdrawing most of the 127,000 American forces in the war zone.
Video: Senators discuss Iraq vote The first, offered by Sen. John Kerry and supported by 12 other Democrats but no Republicans, would have required the administration to start pulling troops out by year's end. It also would have set a deadline of July 2007 for all combat forces to leave.
"Redeploying United States troops is necessary," said Kerry, D-Mass.
Most senators didn't agree, and the proposal fell on a 86-13 vote.
Minutes later, the Senate defeated by 60-39 a resolution to urge the administration to begin "a phased redeployment of U.S. forces" sometime this year. The resolution would not have set a deadline for the end of the U.S. presence in Iraq.
That vote was largely along party lines.
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Siding with all but one Republican were six Democrats -- Sens. Mark Dayton of Minnesota, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and three running for re-election this fall: Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Bill Nelson of Florida and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
Sen. Lincoln Chafee, who also is in the midst of a difficult re-election campaign, was the only Republican supporter of the resolution.
Despite the Democratic defections, Reid said his rank-and-file were united. "Every Democrat agrees that the direction of the war in Iraq must change, and change now," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, for his part, said Democrats backed "cut and run" plans for surrender. "The Senate defeated a bad policy that threatens our national security and poses unacceptable risks to Americans," Frist said.
At a Pentagon briefing, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said he expected reductions in U.S. forces this year but did not agree with congressional efforts to put a timetable on the effort.
"I don't like it, I feel it would limit my flexibility" and give the enemy a schedule to focus on, said Gen. George Casey.
The politics of troop redeployment
On Capitol Hill, the two parties' competing assessments previewed likely lines of attack little more than four months before Election Day.
Republicans are working to hang onto control of Congress and overcome polls showing the public favors a shift to Democrats. Faced with problems of their own, Democrats are seeking to capitalize on voter discontent with Bush's handling of the war.
In a fiercely partisan debate over two days, Senate Republicans opposed any timeline and painted Democrats as reckless with national security. The GOP said a premature pullout and a public pronouncement of any such plan would risk all-out civil war, tip off terrorists, threaten U.S. security and cripple the Iraqi government just as democracy was taking hold.
"A policy of retreat," declared Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said leaving Iraq would "risk disaster" there. "Withdrawal and fail, or commit and succeed," he said, laying out the choice as Republicans see it.
Many Democrats, for their part, chastised Republicans who, they said, blindly backed the president. They suggested that the GOP would pay a price in November for standing with Bush's war policies.
"A rubber-stamp approach, voting in lockstep to support the status quo," Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said, summing up the Democratic view of the GOP.
"It's wrong to affirm that 'stay the course' is a strategy for success," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said.
From Capitol Hill to campaign tactics
Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have staged debates on Iraq for two weeks, with both sides maneuvering for the political upper hand in a midterm election year. Both the House and Senate soundly defeated withdrawal timetables last week, the Senate votes showing up in campaign literature shortly after they were cast.
Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown, challenging Sen. Mike DeWine for election in Ohio, issued a news release accusing the GOP incumbent of failing military families by "voting for more of the same in Iraq."
The GOP's Senate campaign committee e-mailed its own news release criticizing Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., as an "ultra-liberal" who cast a "vote to surrender in Iraq."
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