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Congress sets terms of Iraq exit

Times Staff Writer

In an act unparalleled since the Vietnam War, Congress passed legislation Thursday that directs the president to begin bringing home U.S. troops from Iraq and extricating America from the midst of a bloody civil war.

The historic 51-46 Senate vote for a $124-billion war spending bill -- which followed House passage of the measure Wednesday -- thrust a withdrawal timeline on a fiercely resistant White House.

It came even as the top commander in Iraq appealed for more time, saying the United States is “just getting started.”

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, on his first return to Washington since he took command, said Thursday at a Pentagon news conference that the war was “going to require enormous commitment, and commitment over time.”

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The widely respected commander declined to say how long he believed the current troop levels would be needed, and warned, “This effort may get harder before it gets easier.”

Bush has repeatedly criticized Congress for interfering with military decisions and has pledged to veto the spending measure as soon as it reaches his desk next week.

Democratic lawmakers acknowledge they do not have the votes to override a veto, but have defiantly promised to pass more legislation to try to bring the divisive, four-year war to a close.

“Under the Constitution, Congress has a duty to question the war policies of this or any president,” said 89-year-old Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.V.), who began serving in Congress before the Vietnam War. “We must listen to the voices of the people. And the American people have sent a very clear message to Washington. It is time to start to bring our troops home from Iraq. The Congress has responded.”

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The White House quickly condemned the vote, although Bush himself made no public comment. Spokeswoman Dana Perino described it as “defeatist legislation that insists on a date for surrender, micromanages our commanders and generals in combat zones from 6,000 miles away and adds billions of dollars in unrelated spending.”

Despite weeks of speeches deriding Democrats for meddling in the war, the president did not swing a single vote in Congress. And recent polls show that popular support for withdrawing troops actually increased while Bush was aggressively attacking the Democrats for their timeline.

The complex measure that Democrats pushed through Congress funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and provides billions of dollars for veterans’ healthcare, relief for hurricane-damaged Gulf Coast states and other nonmilitary programs. It does not cut funding for military operations in Iraq.

Nor are its limits on the military unprecedented. Over the last three decades, lawmakers have repeatedly dictated how and when American forces can operate abroad, including in Central America, Somalia and the Balkans. But by explicitly setting the terms for an end to U.S. involvement in a war, this Congress has gone further than any since the Vietnam era.

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Then, lawmakers imposed limits on what the armed forces could do, ordering troops out of Cambodia after President Nixon’s controversial 1970 incursion.

But Congress did not finally ban U.S. military operations in Southeast Asia until after the Paris peace accords were signed in 1973. And lawmakers did not cut funding until all U.S. forces had been withdrawn.

In contrast, Democrats have pushed through a far more confrontational plan that would require the president to wind down the Iraq war. And they did this less than four months after taking power in an election widely viewed as a referendum on Bush’s conduct of the war.

The Democratic plan ties the withdrawal to the performance of the Iraqi government, which American officials and lawmakers have repeatedly criticized for not moving quickly enough to reduce violence between Shiites and Sunni Arabs.

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If Bush fails to certify that the Iraqi government is making progress on a series of “reconciliation initiatives” -- including disarming militias and equitably dividing oil revenue among the country’s ethnic and sectarian groups -- withdrawals must begin July 1.

The plan sets a nonbinding goal of completing the withdrawal within 180 days, which would end the U.S. combat role on Dec. 27.

The measure gives Bush more leeway if he can demonstrate that the Iraqi government is making progress. Under that scenario, the plan orders the withdrawal to begin Oct. 1, with a goal to complete the pullout by March 28.

Acknowledging the threat from international terrorism, the Democratic plan allows some troops to remain to train Iraqi forces, protect American interests and conduct limited counter-terrorism operations.

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Democrats, who have complained vigorously about growing strains on the military, also would require Bush to explain publicly why military units are being deployed if they have not met standards for training and rest at their home bases.

The president and his congressional allies have repeatedly lambasted the measure as a disastrous congressional intrusion into military policy that will embolden America’s enemies and abandon Iraqis to a bloodbath.

Thursday, GOP senators again derided the plan on the floor of the Senate.

“If earlier Congresses had done what it appears that this Congress is trying to do, freedom would have died in Europe. It would have died where it was in Asia,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who compared the current challenge facing America to the one that confronted the World War II generation.

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“And who knows what would have happened ... in America,” said Hutchison, one of the White House’s most loyal allies.

Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, the senior GOP member of the Appropriations Committee, chided Democrats for delaying money for U.S. troops by wasting time on legislation that Bush has promised to veto.

“We should be providing the president with a bill he can sign so our military forces can receive the funding they need now,” Cochran said.

But every Democrat voted for the measure, as did two GOP senators -- Oregon’s Gordon H. Smith and Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel. Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, voted with the Republican minority.

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Three senators, including Arizona’s John McCain, missed the vote. This is the fourth major Iraq-related vote missed by McCain, a presidential candidate who has been a leading champion of the president’s current Iraq policy.

Democratic leaders acknowledge that the next steps in this evolving showdown between the White House and Congress are still unclear.

After a veto, it could take a month or more for Democrats to assemble a new funding bill that does not contain withdrawal language. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he hoped Democrats could send the president a new bill by June.

But emboldened by public enthusiasm for ending the war, Democrats appear determined to attach their withdrawal plan to other legislation in the months ahead.

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“For the sake of our troops, we cannot repeat the mistakes of Vietnam and allow this to drag on long after the American people know it’s a mistake,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who as a young senator in the early 1970s helped fight to end American involvement in Vietnam.

“The American people were right in Vietnam and brought that war to an end. And the American people are right now.”

noam.levey@latimes.com

Times staff writers Julian E. Barnes and Maura Reynolds contributed to this report.

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Money in, troops out

The Senate passed legislation that would provide about $100 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and set the timeline for withdrawing troops over the next 11 months.

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How the Senate voted

Yes

Democrats: 48

Republicans: 2

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Independent: 1

Total: 51

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No

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Republicans: 45

Independent: 1

Total: 46

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Did not vote

Democrats: 1

Republicans: 2

Total: 3

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Withdrawal plan

The war spending bill calls for troop withdrawals with these provisions:

July 1-Dec. 27

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The president must certify that the Iraqi government has made substantial progress on key benchmarks. If not, troop withdrawal would begin immediately, with a goal to be completed within 180 days, or by Dec. 27.

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Oct. 1-March 28

Regardless of the progress Iraq makes, the president must begin withdrawal by Oct. 1, with a goal to be completed within 180 days, or by March 28, 2008.

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Largest fund allocations

The bulk of the money in the $124.2-billion bill is for war efforts and to fight international terrorism.

Department of Defense: $95.5 billion

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State Department: $5.7 billion

Department of Homeland Security: $2.25 billion

Veteran’s healthcare: $1.8 billion

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Other highlights

Gulf Coast hurricane relief: $6.9 billion

Agricultural assistance: $3.5 billion

Combating a flu pandemic: $663 million

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Children’s health insurance: $650 million

Wildfire suppression: $500 million

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Note: The plan would allow some troops to remain in Iraq to protect U.S. interests, train Iraqi forces and conduct counter-terrorism raids.

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Sources: U.S. Congress, Times research

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Los Angeles Times

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