Defying a veto threat, the Democratic-controlled Senate narrowly signaled support Tuesday for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq by next March.
Republican attempts to scuttle the non-binding timeline failed on a vote of 50-48, largely along party lines. The roll call marked the Senate’s most forceful challenge to date of the administration’s handling of a war that has claimed the lives of more than 3,200 U.S. troops.
Three months after Democrats took power in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the moment was at hand to “send a message to President Bush that the time has come to find a new way forward in this intractable war.”
But Republicans — and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent Democrat — argued otherwise.
John McCain, R-Ariz., a presidential hopeful, said that “we are starting to turn things around” in the Iraq war and that a timeline for withdrawal would embolden the terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere.
The effect of the timeline would be to “snatch defeat from the jaws of progress in Iraq,” agreed Lieberman, who won a new term last fall in a three-way race after losing the Democratic nomination to an anti-war candidate.
Bush had previously said he would veto any bill containing the timeline, and the White House freshened the threat a few hours before the vote on Tuesday. “This and other provisions would place freedom and democracy in Iraq at grave risk, embolden our enemies and undercut the administration’s plan to develop the Iraqi economy,” it said in a statement.
Democrats won over swing voter
Similar legislation drew only 48 votes in the Senate earlier this month, but Democratic leaders made a change that persuaded Nebraska’s Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson to swing behind the measure.
Additionally, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a vocal critic of the war, sided with the Democrats, assuring them of the majority they needed to turn back a challenge led by Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.
The debate came on legislation that provides $122 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as domestic priorities such relief to hurricane victims and payments to farmers.
Separately, supporters of an increase in the minimum wage readied an effort to attach the measure to the spending bill, along with companion tax cuts that Republicans have demanded. The House and Senate have passed different versions of the bill but have yet to reach a compromise.
Test of legislative wills
The House has already passed legislation requiring troops to be withdrawn by Sept. 1, 2008. The Senate vote assured that the Democratic-controlled Congress would send Bush legislation later this spring that calls for a change in war policy. A veto is a certainty, presuming the president follows through.
That would put the onus back on the Democrats, who would have to decide how long they wanted to extend the test of wills in the face of what are likely to be increasingly urgent statements from the administration that the money is needed for troops in the war zone.
“Frankly, I think we’d like to reach out to the president ... and say, ‘Mr. President, this is not a unilateral government. It is a separation of powers, and the Congress of the United States is assuming review,”’ House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland told reporters as the Senate debated the war.
Reid also referred to the president at a news conference. “I would hope that he would be willing to work with us in coming up with some language that both (houses of Congress) could accept. At this stage, he has been very non-negotiable. So we’ll see what happens,” he said.
As drafted, the legislation called for troop withdrawal to begin within 120 days, with a non-binding goal that calls for the combat troops to be gone within a year.
The measure also includes a series of suggested goals for the Iraqi government to meet to provide for its own security, enhance democracy and distribute its oil wealth fairly — provisions designed to attract support from Nelson and Pryor.
Critical moment for Democrats
The vote was a critical test for Reid and the new Democratic majority in the Senate nearly three months after they took power. Despite several attempts, they had yet to win approval for any legislation challenging Bush’s policies in a war that has claimed the lives of more than 3,200 U.S. troops and cost in excess of $300 billion.
Republicans prevented debate over the winter on non-binding measures critical of Bush’s decision to deploy an additional 21,500 troops. That led to the 50-48 vote derailing a bill that called for a troop withdrawal to begin within 120 days but set only a non-binding target of March 31, 2008, for the departure of the final combat forces.
Some Democrats said they would support the non-binding timetable even though they wanted more. “I want a deadline not only for commencing the withdrawal of our forces but also completing it rather than a target date,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
“This provision represents a 90-degree change of course from the president’s policy of escalation in the middle of a civil war,” he said, “I’m confident once the withdrawal of our troops begins, there will be no turning back.”
Republicans disagreed, strongly. “Wars cannot be run from these hallowed and comfortable and sanctified chambers 10,000 miles away from the war zone,” said Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo. “How about allowing the officers, the men and the commanders in the field who are engaged daily, risking their lives to bring peace and security to Iraq, determine when and how we can best turn over to the Iraqi security forces the critical job, the critical job of assuring security.”