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Bush gets a breather on war debate

Times Staff Writer

Senate Democrats abruptly cut off debate on the war in Iraq on Wednesday, probably putting off their confrontation with President Bush until September, when the administration must update Congress on current U.S. strategy.

The surprise move by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) came after Republicans, for the seventh time this year, blocked a measure to change U.S. policy in Iraq. The latest Democratic proposal would have set a timeline for pulling out combat troops.

Democrats fell short of the 60-vote supermajority that Republican leaders had demanded to end debate on the measure, an amendment to the defense authorization bill. Four Republicans joined Democrats in the 52-47 vote, which capped a theatrical round-the-clock session Tuesday night orchestrated by Democratic leaders to put pressure on GOP lawmakers.

“We kind of put them to the test today,” Reid said. “They are more interested in protecting the president than protecting the troops.”

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Reid’s decision to pull the defense bill from the Senate floor and move to other legislation ended the latest Democratic gambit to force Bush to begin a redeployment and handed the president a two-month reprieve.

The move also meant there would be no votes on closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which many Democrats would like to do.

But the delay in the war debate may prove troublesome for some Republicans who were denied an opportunity to demonstrate their concerns. More than a dozen have expressed reservations. Reid’s maneuver prevented them from voting on measures that would have simply advised the president to change his strategy.

Now, GOP lawmakers may go home for the August recess to face their constituents after voting against a measure that would have compelled Bush to start bringing the unpopular war to an end.

The proposal would have forced a withdrawal to begin within 120 days of enactment and mandated that most troops be out by April 30, 2008. It would have allowed troops to remain for limited missions, such as protecting U.S. personnel, training Iraqis and going after terrorist networks.

GOP lawmakers angrily denounced Reid’s tactics Wednesday and accused him of trying to scuttle chances for a bipartisan compromise on the war.

“I am disappointed,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. “Harry Reid needs to back off and stop playing politics.”

Alexander has been pushing a measure with some Democrats to urge the president to adopt the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations, including a new diplomatic initiative in the Middle East.

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Reid, who has become one of the Capitol’s most impassioned war critics, has maneuvered all year to put pressure on Republicans for their support of the president and the war. He seemed untroubled by the GOP complaints Wednesday.

“You cannot fight against the future,” Reid said. “Time is on our side.”

Congress is expected to restart the war debate after Sept. 15, when the top U.S. military commander in Iraq and the U.S. ambassador deliver a progress report on Bush’s 30,000-troop buildup.

Since Democrats assumed the majority in January, Reid has pressed for war votes designed to split Republicans and isolate the president.

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The GOP has repeatedly rallied, using Senate rules to filibuster nearly every attempt by Democrats to legislate changes in the way the Bush administration is waging the war.

Reid and other Senate Democratic leaders have cast Republicans as obstacles to change, betting that as public sentiment on the war continues to sour, restive GOP lawmakers would pressure the White House to change course in Iraq.

In recent weeks, a growing number of GOP lawmakers has publicly called on Bush to shift his strategy, which has U.S. troops trying to stem the violence between the country’s Sunni and Shiite populations.

Several prominent Senate Republicans -- including former Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner of Virginia and former Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar -- have proposed a measure mandating that the president develop a plan by Oct. 16 to redeploy forces. Warner and Lugar recommend that the plan be executable by the end of the year.

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Six other Republicans, including Alexander, joined eight Democrats in backing a plan to implement the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

Reid and other Democrats have derided both of those measures as weak, preferring the effort to force Bush to wind down U.S. military involvement.

Last week, a proposal that would have required more rest time for troops between deployments overseas was blocked by Republican lawmakers, although it won seven GOP votes.

And this week, Democrats returned to their proposal to set specific dates for withdrawing U.S. forces, arguing that such legislation was the only way to force a president who had repeatedly ignored Congress and the public to change strategy.

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“This war was born in deception. At the highest levels of our government, it has been waged with incompetence and arrogance,” Assistant Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said Wednesday in an impassioned address on the Senate floor. “This war will not end if we rely on the insight or humility of this president. We ... must speak for the American people. We must speak for our war-weary soldiers. And we must bring this war to an end.”

With the four GOP votes they garnered Wednesday, senior Democrats doubled the Republican support they got in March, when the Senate passed a war spending bill, 51 to 47, that set a nearly identical timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops. The president vetoed the measure.

GOP Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, who both voted for the withdrawal timeline in March, this time were joined by Maine Republicans Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins. Smith and Collins are up for reelection next year, and the war is certain to be a central issue.

Most Republicans continue to resist a firm withdrawal timeline, however, arguing that it risks inciting chaos in Iraq and further strengthening Al Qaeda in Iraq, a militant group U.S. officials link to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.

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“A free hand for Al Qaeda in Iraq makes Iraq less safe. But it also makes America less safe.... Our enemy will simply follow us here,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) warned Wednesday, echoing Bush.

Republicans, including Warner, Lugar and Alexander, favor measures that give the president more discretion to adjust U.S. policy in Iraq as he sees fit.

But denied the chance to consider such alternatives, GOP lawmakers were left to rail against the Democratic leader.

“There was no justification and no excuse for Sen. Reid pulling down this bill,” Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said after the vote. “Now the Senate is spiraling into the ground to a degree that I have never seen before.... This is a tragedy.”

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noam.levey@latimes.com


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