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Changes to war strategy fail in Senate

Times Staff Writer

For the eighth time this year, Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked a Democratic move to challenge U.S. policy in Iraq, turning aside a plan to give troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan more rest between deployments.

The vote marked another victory for the Bush administration, which had lobbied hard against the proposal by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and continued to command the allegiance of congressional Republicans despite persistent public unhappiness with the war.

And it punctuated Democrats’ struggles to persuade GOP lawmakers to back even moderate legislation designed to limit the administration’s conduct of the war.

Though Senate Democrats are working on other measures challenging the White House -- among them, a proposal to scale back the mission of U.S. forces in Iraq -- the defeat of the Webb measure for the second time in two months clouded the prospects for any meaningful legislation opposing the war.

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On Wednesday, Democrats fell four votes short of the 60-vote supermajority needed to prevent a filibuster of Webb’s proposed amendment to the defense authorization bill.

Just six Republicans joined 49 Democrats and one independent in voting for the Webb amendment, which also narrowly failed to overcome a filibuster in July when seven GOP lawmakers voted for it. Forty-three Republicans and one independent voted against the proposal Wednesday.

Frustrated Senate Democrats accused Republicans of abdicating their constitutional responsibility to look out for the well-being of the military.

“In blocking this bipartisan bill, Republicans have once again demonstrated that they are more committed to protecting the president than protecting our troops,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement after the vote.

But Republican lawmakers, many of whom were backing a nonbinding alternative, rallied against Webb’s proposal as a “backdoor” attempt to force a precipitous pullout, and secured more “no” votes than they did in July.

“Every one of us care about the men and women who are serving in the military,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading champion of the current U.S. military strategy in Iraq, who said the measure would “emasculate this surge” just as it was showing signs of success.

“Let us win,” McCain said.

Senate Republicans also blocked a proposal to grant terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere habeas corpus rights, which would have allowed them to challenge their incarcerations in federal courts.

That measure -- sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the committee’s senior Republican -- garnered 56 votes, four shy of the 60 necessary to cut off debate.

Six Republicans, 49 Democrats and one independent backed the proposal, which would have reversed legislation passed by last year’s Republican Congress; 42 Republicans and one independent opposed it.

The votes Wednesday reinforced how little had changed in the congressional debate over the war, despite the much-anticipated report by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus last week and a new initiative by Democrats to woo Republicans uneasy with the president’s war strategy.

In recent weeks, senior Democrats considered dropping their insistence on a withdrawal deadline to force the president to bring home troops, which Republicans have objected to all year.

Many Democrats felt that Webb’s proposal offered the best hope for attracting Republican support, especially as evidence mounted of the toll on the military caused by 4 1/2 years of war in Iraq and nearly six years of war in Afghanistan. Repeated tours are creating problems with recruitment and are depleting units of vital equipment. The number of suicides among military personnel also is rising.

Webb, a Vietnam veteran, and his supporters have argued that Congress must alleviate the growing strain on service members, many of whom have served multiple tours overseas since the Iraq war began in 2003.

“The humanity of this is lost,” said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), another Vietnam veteran and a leading cosponsor of Webb’s proposal. “It’s unfair to continue to load this burden on the same people, deployment after deployment. Not only will you ruin your military . . . but you will also have an impact on our society, because a democracy cannot continue to function when you ask 1% to make all the sacrifices and carry all the burdens.”

The proposal would have prevented the redeployment of active-duty troops to Iraq or Afghanistan until they had rested at home for the same period of time they were in the war zone. It would have mandated three years between overseas tours for Reserve and National Guard forces.

The measure, a version of which passed the House last month, was backed by the Military Officers Assn. of America. Earlier this week, several dozen veterans joined Democratic leaders at the Capitol to lobby in favor of the proposal.

In recent days, in an effort to attract support, Webb also softened the measure’s requirements by giving the Pentagon 120 days to enact the measure. In a nod to critiques from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, he also offered a waiver for special operations forces.

Army officials said privately last week that the measure would not force the Bush administration to accelerate the pace of troop withdrawals outlined last week by the president and Petraeus. Bush has said he hopes to bring home about 30,000 troops by next summer.

But as the administration mounted an increasingly aggressive campaign to stop it, the legislation collapsed in the face of nearly unified GOP resistance.

Gates, who held a news conference Friday to oppose the measure, criticized it as putting too many restrictions on the military and urged its rejection in a detailed letter to lawmakers this week.

Senior military officers traveled Wednesday to Capitol Hill, where they met with moderate Republicans to press the case against the Webb measure.

Army officials told the senators that they had identified two support units slated to go to Iraq in the next year whose tours would have to be delayed if the Webb amendment became law. No combat brigades would have been affected in the next 12 months, but after September 2008, the deployments of two brigades slated to go to Iraq late that year or in 2009 would have to be delayed, according to Army officials.

The campaign had the desired impact. In a critical reversal, former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) -- one of his party’s most respected voices on national defense -- told his colleagues this week that he would reject Webb’s proposal.

“I’ve been convinced by those in the professional uniform that they cannot do it,” Warner said Wednesday in a long speech on the floor of the Senate. He also said he feared provoking a presidential veto during wartime.

Warner, a Navy and Marine Corps veteran and, like Webb, a former secretary of the Navy, had voted for Webb’s proposal in July. Wednesday, he championed a nonbinding measure that expressed the “sense of the Senate” that the Defense Department should strive to give military personnel the amount of rest outlined in Webb’s proposal.

That measure, which garnered 55 votes, also failed to meet the required 60-vote threshold.

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noam.levey@latimes.com

Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes contributed to this report.


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