Setting the stage for a confrontation with President Bush over the war in Iraq, the Senate on Tuesday for the first time backed a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops.
The 50-48 vote turned aside a Republican bid to strip timelines from a $122-billion emergency spending bill being sought by the White House to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With Republicans unexpectedly giving up plans to block the bill, the closely divided Senate appears poised to pass the legislation and its controversial timelines as soon as today.
With the House having approved its own timelines last week, congressional Democrats are close to presenting the president with a stark choice: Veto the essential war funding or negotiate directly with war critics in a way he has never done.
“He doesn’t get everything he wants now, so I think it’s time that he started working with us,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a chief architect of the Democratic campaign to pressure Bush to alter his war policy. “The president must change course.”
The Senate bill would require Bush to begin pulling out combat troops within 120 days of the measure’s enactment and would set a goal of completing the withdrawal by March 31, 2008.
Bush has repeatedly rejected timelines, criticizing them for tying the hands of military commanders.
On Tuesday, the White House reiterated a veto threat that the president delivered last week after the House approved its version of the war funding bill, which would mandate a withdrawal of most U.S. troops no later than August 2008.
“The president is disappointed that the Senate continues down a path with a bill that he will veto and has no chance of becoming law,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in a statement.
In the three months since Democrats assumed the majority on Capitol Hill, the White House has been able to count on Republican lawmakers to back up those warnings with legislative action.
Senate Republicans, weathering accusations that they were preventing debate on the most important issue facing the country, twice last month filibustered nonbinding resolutions criticizing Bush’s plan to deploy additional troops to Iraq.
And less than two weeks ago, the Senate rejected a resolution that, like the war funding bill, called for a troop pullout by March 31, 2008. Two Democrats and one independent voted with the Republicans.
But this week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) indicated that Senate Republicans would not use their power to filibuster the spending bill, even though Democrats stood little chance of mustering the 60 votes needed to overcome such a GOP maneuver.
McConnell and other GOP lawmakers said the decision reflected their desire to get a bill to the president’s desk quickly so he could veto it and Congress would be forced to pass a spending measure without the limits.
“We are committed on the Republican side to funding our troops ... and are not interested in allowing the political posturing to get in the way of the core support,” McConnell said.
He and other GOP lawmakers say the Democratic timeline proposal is a strategy for defeat that would hobble the administration’s plan to boost troop levels to fight Sunni Arab insurgents in Al Anbar province and to contain sectarian violence in Baghdad.
“Conditions have changed in Iraq,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told his Senate colleagues, noting decreasing ethnic violence and increased cooperation from Iraqi authorities.
“The Baghdad security plan, the ‘surge,’ is working far better than even the most optimistic supporter had predicted,” McCain said. “Markets that have been subject to horrific car bombings have been turned into pedestrian malls.”
But the speeches did not sway enough Republicans to eliminate the timelines. Two GOP lawmakers -- Oregon’s Gordon H. Smith and Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel -- crossed the aisle and voted with Democrats.
Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor and Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman, who caucuses with Democrats, voted with the GOP.
Two senators did not vote: Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), who is in a rehabilitation facility after suffering a brain hemorrhage last year, and Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.).
By allowing the bill to pass, Senate Republicans have effectively left the White House to confront congressional Democrats alone.
That was a wise political decision, said longtime GOP consultant Frank Luntz.
“At a certain point, Republicans have to let the president stand up.... This was George W. Bush’s policy. It should be George W. Bush’s decision,” Luntz said. “George Bush will not be up for reelection again. In 2008, the entire House and one-third of the Senate will.”
For their part, Democrats seem to be relishing the impending showdown.
Emboldened by public support for ending the war, many party leaders and strategists think that even if the president vetoes a spending bill containing the timelines, the Democratic campaign to bring the war to a close will move forward.
“This is all part of a longer-term process of building pressure on the administration to change its Iraq policy,” said Democratic strategist Mark Mellman. “The truth is that the best way to affect policy is by politics. It is by ratcheting up the political pressure that there will be a substantive change in policy.”
House and Senate Democratic leaders indicated that they were open to negotiating with the White House, providing a hint of how the showdown might be resolved.
But Reid said Bush would have to make some concessions.
“We’re not going to back down from essential language,” he said.
And the White House sent few signals that Bush was ready to give in to Democratic demands for a plan to end U.S. military involvement in Iraq.
“We’re open to discussions, but they need to be done soon so that the necessary funding that our troops need can get to them, and get to them without tying the hands of the generals on the ground,” said Gordon D. Johndroe, an administration spokesman.
The Pentagon has warned that unless a funding bill is approved by Congress and signed by the president in the next month, deployments to Iraq could be jeopardized.
If Bush vetoes the spending bill, Congress would be forced to draft new legislation and begin the debate again.
As House and Senate leaders prepare to confer next week to work out differences in the two spending bills, many Democrats will be looking for signs of dialogue between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
“We now have a majority of both bodies that have produced binding legislation on Iraq,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “The president may decide to veto it, but ... [he] can’t ignore the fact that this is where the Congress of the United States stands.”
Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.
Begin text of infobox
48 - Number of Senate Democrats who voted to keep a measure in the war spending bill that would force President Bush to begin withdrawing U.S. forces within 120 days after enactment. They were joined by two Republicans.
46 - Republicans who voted to remove withdrawal timelines from the spending bill. They were joined by one Democrat and one independent.
2 - Senators who did not vote on the war spending bill.
Source: U.S. Senate