A defiant Democratic-controlled Senate passed legislation Thursday that would require the start of troop withdrawals from Iraq by Oct. 1, propelling Congress toward a historic veto showdown with President Bush on the war.
The 51-46 vote was largely along party lines, and like House passage of the same bill a day earlier, fell far short of the two-thirds margin needed to overturn the president’s threatened veto. Nevertheless, the legislation is the first binding challenge on the war that Democrats have managed to send to Bush since they reclaimed control of both houses of Congress in January.
“The president has failed in his mission to bring peace and stability to the people of Iraq,” said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., chairman of the Appropriations Committee. He later added: “It’s time to bring our troops home from Iraq.”
The $124.2 billion bill requires troop withdrawals to begin Oct. 1, or sooner if the Iraqi government does not meet certain benchmarks. The House passed the measure Wednesday by a 218-208 vote.
Across the Potomac River at the Pentagon, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, told reporters the war effort likely will “get harder before it gets easier.”
Asked at a news conference about the impact, Petraeus said that “I have tried to stay clear of the political minefields of various legislative proposals.”
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the vote was not helpful.
“We see some negative signs in the decision because it sends wrong signals to some sides that might think of alternatives to the political process,” al-Dabbagh said. “Coalition forces gave lots of sacrifices and they should continue their mission, which is building Iraqi security forces to take over.”
Republicans Gordon Smith of Oregon and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska sided with 48 Democrats and Independent Bernard Sanders in supporting the bill. No Democrats joined the 45 Republicans in voting against it. Missing from the vote were GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both staunch advocates of the president’s Iraq policy.
Bill dead on arrival?
Republicans said the vote amounted to little more than political theater because the bill would be dead on arrival after reaching the White House. Bush said he will veto the bill so long as it contains a timetable on Iraq, as well as $20 billion in spending added by Democrats.
“The solution is simple: Take out the surrender date, take out the pork, and get the funds to our troops,” said Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., sided with Republicans in opposing the bill.
“We delude ourselves if we think we can wave a legislative wand and suddenly our troops in the field will be able to distinguish between al-Qaida terrorism or sectarian violence. Or that Iraqis will suddenly settle their political differences because our troops are leaving,” Lieberman said.
'Mission Accomplished' anniversary
Democrats said the bill was on track to arrive on the president’s desk by Tuesday, the anniversary of Bush’s announcement aboard the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln that major combat operations in Iraq had ended.
“The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on Sept. 11, 2001, and still goes on,” Bush said on May 1, 2003, in front of a huge “Mission Accomplished” banner.
Bush since has acknowledged that the war campaign has not progressed as he had hoped. After the November elections in which Democrats swept up enough seats to take the majority, Bush announced a new strategy that involved sending additional forces to Iraq.
“Last November, the American people voted for a change in strategy in Iraq — and the president listened,” White House spokesman Dana Perino said in a statement Wednesday. “Tonight, the House of Representatives voted for failure in Iraq — and the president will veto its bill.”
Republicans labeled the timetable a “surrender date.”
“Al-Qaida will view this as the day the House of Representatives threw in the towel,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee.
The huge bill would fund the war, among other things, but demand troop withdrawals begin on Oct. 1 or sooner if the Iraqi government does not meet certain benchmarks. The bill sets a nonbinding goal of completing the troop pullout by April 1, 2008, allowing for forces conducting certain noncombat missions, such as attacking terrorist networks or training Iraqi forces, to remain.
In the House, Two Republicans — Reps. Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland and Walter Jones of North Carolina — joined 216 Democrats in passing the bill. Voting no were 195 Republicans and 13 Democrats.
Bush keeps up pressure
While Bush was confident the bill ultimately would fail because Democrats lacked the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto, he kept up pressure on lawmakers. On the same day as the House vote, the president dispatched Petraeus and other senior defense officials to Capitol Hill to make his case: Additional forces recently sent to Iraq were yielding mixed results and the strategy needed more time to work.
Petraeus told reporters that sectarian killings in Baghdad were only a third of what they were in January, before Bush began sending in additional U.S. forces. But “the ability of al-Qaida to conduct horrific, sensational attacks obviously has represented a setback and is an area in which we’re focusing considerable attention,” Petraeus said.
Republicans and Democrats alike emerged from a private briefing with Petraeus to say he had only confirmed their positions.
‘Real battle’ still ahead?
Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said Democrats were still considering their next step. He said after Bush’s veto, one option would be funding the war through September as Bush wants but setting benchmarks that the Iraqi government must meet.
“I think everything that passes will have some sort of condition (placed) on it,” he said. Ultimately, Murtha added, the 2008 military budget considered by Congress in June “is where you’ll see the real battle,” he said.
The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has said the Army has enough bookkeeping flexibility to pay for operations in Iraq well into July. Lawmakers and Capitol Hill staff aides view mid- to late May as the deadline for completing the war spending bill to avoid hardships.
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt told reporters Wednesday that Republicans would be open to legislation that would condition foreign aid for Iraq on the government’s ability to meet certain standards, such as reaching a political compromise on sharing oil revenues.
“I think that discussion is the discussion we need to have. ... We have for months now favored that kind of inclusion in a bill that may be very important at resolving this impasse that we’re in,” Blunt said.