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House Democrats renew antiwar push

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Nearly two months after Democrats suspended their legislative push to force a withdrawal from Iraq, House Democratic leaders restarted their campaign Wednesday with a measure to compel President Bush to bring troops home.

But with Republican resistance to congressional intervention in the war stronger than ever, there appears little chance that this gambit will advance any further than previous failed efforts.

On Wednesday, a $50-billion war funding bill that would order the president to start withdrawing troops within 30 days and set a goal of completing the pullout by the end of next year passed, 218 to 203.

It attracted just four Republican votes, dozens short of a two-thirds majority needed to overcome a presidential veto.

And in the closely divided Senate, many Democrats concede that they probably won't get close to the 60 votes necessary to end a promised filibuster, which would effectively kill the bill.

"They seem determined to keep bringing up resolutions that they know the president won't agree to," said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a moderate Republican who has urged Bush to adopt a new strategy in Iraq but has rejected all timelines. "We look pretty silly when we lecture Baghdad on being in political stalemate and insist on staying in one ourselves."

Earlier in the day, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino accused congressional Democrats of planning "to send the president a bill that they know he will veto."

"This is for political posturing and to appease radical groups," she said.

Democratic leaders countered that they had the broader public on their side. "Democrats are committed to bringing the American people what they deserve and demand," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). "An end to President Bush's 10-year, trillion-dollar war."

The new showdown over Iraq war funding comes after a period of relative quiet in the congressional war debate, following the September demise of several Democratic efforts to alter U.S. policy.

Measures to set withdrawal timelines, limit funding and mandate more rest for troops failed to attract enough GOP support to overcome Republican-led filibusters that were bolstered by an upbeat report by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders turned their attention to legislation to expand health insurance for children and fund the federal government.

But faced with an emergency request for $200 billion to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Democrats decided to renew their push for a withdrawal as a condition for approving further funding.

The legislation, drawn up by Pelosi and her lieutenants, limits funding to $50 billion, enough to fund the wars for about four more months.

Like earlier measures, it imposes a date by which withdrawal must begin and sets a nonbinding goal -- Dec. 15, 2008 -- by which most troops should be out.

The measure would allow some U.S. forces to remain in Iraq to protect American personnel, provide limited support to Iraqi security forces and engage in targeted counter-terrorism operations.

And, in an effort to prohibit coercive interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, House Democrats added a provision that would require all detainees in U.S. custody to be interrogated under standards laid out in the Army Field Manual.

The new Iraq legislation may offer some comfort to the Democratic Party's liberal base, whose disappointment over the House and Senate's inability to end the war has helped drive down public approval of Congress this year.

On Wednesday, the bill received crucial support from staunch antiwar lawmakers. "While this bill is not perfect, it is the strongest Iraq bill to date," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), a leader of the influential House Out of Iraq Caucus, who has been pushing the party to challenge the president more forcefully.

Democratic leaders also see the new antiwar initiative as a way to further showcase their differences with the White House over domestic priorities such as healthcare, school aid and new road construction. Those initiatives, they argue, are being neglected as the price tag for the war grows.

"The president has run this war on borrowed money, leaving it to future generations -- my children, my grandchildren and my great-grandchild -- to pay for this war," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a leading architect of the new political strategy. "Generations to come are being put deeply into debt."

In the California delegation, Rep. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs) did not vote; the remainder split along party lines.

Opinion surveys show that Americans are deeply concerned about rising costs of health insurance, the state of the economy and other domestic problems, as well as the war.

But the new Democratic effort shows no signs of swaying Republican lawmakers, who point to signs of progress in Iraq in their determination to resist any new initiatives to force a withdrawal.

Though 2007 has been the deadliest year of the war for American troops, U.S. casualties declined sharply last month, and there have been signs that sectarian violence may be ebbing as well.

"The tide is turning in Iraq," Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said on the House floor Wednesday. "Now is not the time to micromanage a widening success in Iraq. Let's give the American soldiers the resources they need."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has pushed to limit funding to paying for a withdrawal, said this week that Democrats would not send the president a spending bill that did not include some conditions.

But privately, many Democrats acknowledge they may have no choice.

"I want to end this war as much as the next guy," said Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who was elected last year. "But I just don't see how we don't fund the troops."

noam.levey@latimes.com

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