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Troop pullout plan fails in Senate, advances in House

Times Staff Writers

In an ominous sign for the Democratic legislative campaign to end the war in Iraq, the Senate on Thursday rejected a resolution that would have required President Bush to begin withdrawing U.S. combat troops within 120 days after it was enacted.

Two Democrats joined one independent and all but one Republican to reject the measure, 50 to 48, marking the third time in the last six weeks that an antiwar resolution has foundered in the closely divided Senate.

But the vote -- the first in either chamber that would have forced an end to the war -- also underscores how much congressional support for the conflict has eroded in the four years since the invasion.

The White House has repeatedly indicated that Bush would veto any measure that would restrict his ability to conduct the war. And Thursday, a spokeswoman touted the resolution’s defeat and issued a warning to House Democrats pushing their own withdrawal plan.

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“We hope the leaders in the House have paid close attention to what just took place in the upper chamber,” Emily Lawrimore said in a statement. “Now is not the time for divisive legislation aimed at scoring political points at home.”

The veto threats -- and the setbacks in the Senate -- have not deterred Democrats in the House, however. On Thursday, they charged ahead with their plans, pushing through a key committee a bill that would force withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Iraq by summer 2008.

After a testy, fiercely partisan hearing, the House Appropriations Committee voted nearly along party lines to attach the withdrawal plan to an emergency war spending bill whose passage the Bush administration needs to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Next week, members of the House will have a choice,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) after the committee acted. “Vote to continue the president’s open-ended commitment to a war without end or vote to responsibly redeploy our troops.”

A chamber divided

The Democratic drive to force the White House to end the war has faced a bigger challenge in the Senate, where Democrats have only a 51-49 majority.

That was dramatically underscored Thursday.

The resolution written by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) mandated that the president begin “phased redeployment” of U.S. forces from Iraq no later than 120 days after enactment. And it set a “goal” of March 31, 2008, to complete the withdrawal, allowing some U.S. forces to remain in Iraq to train Iraqi forces, conduct “targeted counterterrorism operations,” and protect American personnel and facilities.

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Over two days of debate, Reid and other Democrats billed the measure as an attempt to rescue the country from the administration’s failed policies in Iraq.

“There is no plan,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who helped lead opposition to the White House war strategy.

“We went to war with too few troops. We went to war unnecessarily. We went to war with these men and women ill-equipped. They are coming home ill-served,” Biden said. “It’s about time we had the courage to stand up and say to the president, ‘Mr. President, you have not only put us in harm’s way, you have harmed us.... You are leading us off a cliff.’ ”

Responding to criticism that Democrats were seeking to micromanage the war, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) said, “Maybe if the administration was micromanaging the war, we wouldn’t be here today.”

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But Democrats won the backing of only one Republican: Sen. Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, who faces a tough reelection campaign next year. “Setting specific dates for withdrawal is unwise,” he said in a statement, “but what is worse is remaining mired in the quicksand of the Sunni-Shia civil war.”

The other Republicans lined up behind their leaders, who vigorously attacked the Reid resolution as a recipe for failure in Iraq and in the wider war against terrorism.

“If we leave Iraq before the job is done, as surely as night follows day, the terrorists will follow us home,” warned Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.).

Like many GOP lawmakers, Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri cautioned his colleagues about trying to run the war from Capitol Hill. “Is the American public to believe that legislators ... 8,000 miles away from the front are better equipped to develop strategies than Gen. [David] Petraeus?” Bond asked, referring to the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

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Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, as well as independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, voted with the GOP. Pryor called it “a grave mistake to publicly announce timetables and consequently hand over our game plan to the enemy.”

Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), who is recuperating from brain surgery, was absent. Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was campaigning in Iowa and missed the vote. McCain, a leading champion of the president’s war strategy, has missed all three of the most crucial votes on the war this year.

The Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly passed two nonbinding resolutions that said Congress should not take any action that would endanger the troops in the field. One, sponsored by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), explicitly expressed opposition to cutting funding.

Lost support

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On the withdrawal resolution, Democrats lost most of the Republican support they had won in an earlier effort against the president’s war strategy.

Six GOP senators who had sided with Democrats last month on a nonbinding resolution rejected the timeline for withdrawal.

One of those Republicans, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, argued that setting a timetable would “embolden the enemy ... to wait us out.”

After the votes Thursday, Reid seemed untroubled by the loss of bipartisan support. “Republicans are going to have to decide whether to continue to support the failed policies of this president or change course,” said the majority leader, who has tried to cast Republicans as obstacles to change since Democrats took the majority in January.

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But Reid faces a tough challenge if he is to do more than that in the coming weeks. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned Thursday that Republicans are equally committed to blocking any withdrawal timelines in the war spending bill when it comes to the Senate.

On the other side of the Capitol, Pelosi and her senior lieutenants face their own challenge rounding up a majority to pass the bill.

But Thursday, House Democrats faced few obstacles as it cruised through the appropriations committee on a 36-28 vote.

Democrats easily turned aside a Republican effort led by former committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) to strip out the timelines.

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And one leading war opponent, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), agreed not to introduce an amendment calling for a withdrawal by the end of this year, a measure that could have complicated approval of the spending bill. The $124-billion spending bill includes nearly all that the administration sought for the military.

The Democratic legislation would set benchmarks for the Iraqi government to show it is confronting sectarian violence. If Bush could not certify by July 1 that progress was being made, he would have to begin withdrawing U.S. forces. Combat forces would have to start withdrawing by next March, according to the bill. And the pullout must be completed by August 2008, with American soldiers allowed to remain only for limited missions, including operations against terrorist groups.

The bill, which Democrats call the “Troop Readiness, Veterans’ Health and Iraq Accountability Act,” also calls for adequate training, equipment and rest for troops. Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a Vietnam veteran and longtime military supporter who wrote the provisions, angrily accused the administration of stretching troops to the breaking point.

The bill features billions of dollars of added funding for veterans’ healthcare and a directive to keep open the troubled Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which is due to shut down by 2011.

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And it contains billions more for items unrelated to the war, including relief for Gulf Coast states recovering from the 2005 hurricanes, money for children’s healthcare and even aid for spinach farmers hurt during a health scare last year.

Unable to stop the bill in committee, the GOP will have another shot when it comes to the floor of the House next week. Pelosi is trying to cobble together the 218 votes needed to pass the measure.

She faces a rebellion on the far left of the party, where Lee and others in the Out of Iraq Caucus are pushing for a withdrawal by the end of this year. And there are Democrats on the conservative side who remain uncomfortable with legislating an end to the war.

“My constituents would view this as micromanaging,” said Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), a longtime supporter of the military and one of the most conservative Democrats in the House.

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richard.simon@latimes.com

noam.levey@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Troop pullout plan

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Congress on Thursday took up proposals calling for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq. The Senate plan, which set a withdrawal “goal” of March 31, 2008, was rejected. The House Appropriations Committee approved the following timetable, which would allow some U.S. forces to remain in Iraq to protect reconstruction efforts, train Iraqi forces and conduct counterterrorism raids:

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July 1

The president must certify that Iraq is making progress toward key goals, such as disarming militias. If he does not, redeployment would begin immediately and would have to be completed within 180 days, or Dec. 28.

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Oct. 1

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The president must certify that Iraq has met key goals. If he does not, combat troops would be completely withdrawn within 180 days, or March 30, 2008.

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March 1, 2008

Whether Iraq meets the goals or not, the redeployment of U.S. combat troops must begin. The pullout would be completed by Aug. 31, 2008.

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Source: Los Angeles Times


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