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Congress breaks without passing war spending bill

Times Staff Writer

Congress left for its Thanksgiving break Friday without passing a bill to pay for the war in Iraq after the Senate deadlocked over a Democratic demand that the measure include a call for most troops to be withdrawn by the end of next year.

As they have all year, Senate Democrats failed to muster the votes to consider a proposal to condition further spending on a timeline for withdrawing troops. The $50-billion bill, which narrowly passed the House on Wednesday, failed by seven votes.

And Republicans in the narrowly divided chamber fell short of a majority for their alternative proposal to send President Bush $70 billion without restrictions.

“We’re in the middle of a war, and playing political games,” said Oregon Sen. Gordon H. Smith, one of the few Republicans who has consistently backed Democratic withdrawal legislation. “It’s all politics, all the time in this 110th Congress.”

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Smith, like several senators, expressed disappointment with party leaders, blaming them for being unwilling to work out compromises on the war.

Maine Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, another Republican who has backed withdrawal plans, also blasted Senate leaders. “By leaving town as the supplemental funding hangs in the balance, Congress is doing a disservice to the American people by ignoring its responsibilities,” she said.

Members of Congress are now off for two weeks.

Administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, warned this week that the impasse on Capitol Hill would force the Pentagon to take drastic measures, including shutting down military bases and laying off employees.

But congressional Democrats have dismissed the warnings, noting that Gates also said there was sufficient money to continue operations in Iraq into February. Congress just sent the administration a $471-billion bill to pay for defense spending this fiscal year, but it does not pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush has asked for $196 billion to fight the wars.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) indicated Friday that he might revisit the war funding legislation when lawmakers return to Washington.

As the partisan showdown over the war escalates after a two-month hiatus, there are few signs that Bush or Democratic leaders in Congress plan to budge.

Reid struck a defiant tone after Friday’s vote, accusing the president of depriving American troops so he could continue to wage the war without checks. “The president just got $470 billion,” Reid said. “He had the offer of getting another $50 billion with a few accountability standards in it. He refused that. So we’ll see what happens.”

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The $50-billion spending measure would have mandated that a withdrawal begin within 30 days of the bill’s enactment, with a goal of being completed by Dec. 15, 2008.

At the White House, spokesman Tony Fratto excoriated Democrats for failing to approve the funding. “Our troops deserve this funding, they need it, and we call on Congress to deliver it as soon as possible,” he said.

The Democratic funding measure received 53 votes, seven shy of the 60-vote supermajority needed to end a filibuster. Four Republicans crossed the aisle to vote with Democrats, the same four who voted for a withdrawal proposal in July: Smith, Snowe, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Susan Collins of Maine.

The competing Republican measure got just 45 votes.

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Three of the four Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate -- Delaware’s Joseph R. Biden Jr., New York’s Hillary Rodham Clinton and Illinois’ Barack Obama -- voted for the withdrawal legislation. The fourth candidate, Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, was the only Democratic senator to oppose it. He has said that the measure did not do enough to compel a pullout.

Republican presidential contender John McCain of Arizona missed both votes.

The $50-billion Democratic proposal, drawn up by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and her lieutenants, would have allocated only enough money to fund the wars for about four more months.

Like some earlier measures, it set a nonbinding goal by which most troops should be out rather than a deadline. The bill would have allowed 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.

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And, to prohibit the CIA from employing 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.

Senate Democrats argued Friday that a withdrawal timeline was more imperative than ever. They said the U.S. military’s recent successful efforts to curb violence had not prompted Iraqi leaders to take the steps to reconcile the country’s ethnic and sectarian communities that peace was supposed to make possible.

“The Iraqi political leadership’s response to the breathing space provided by the surge has been nothing less than abysmal,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who has helped lead Democratic efforts to impose a withdrawal timeline.

“We need to do more than say to the Iraqis that our patience has run out and that they need to seize the opportunity that has been given them,” he said. “Their dawdling will only end when they have no choice.”

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Just as Democrats hewed to a script they have relied on much of the year, Republican lawmakers repeated their warnings about meddling in a distant war.

“In the midst of progress Iraq . . . it simply does not make sense to tie the hands of the commanders on the ground and force them to implement a strategy which in the best judgment of our military leaders, our intelligence agencies and the perspective of countless outside observers will lead to the failure of our mission,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.).

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noam.levey@latimes.com

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