Senate passes $555-billion spending bill

FAREWELL: Senators spent as much time Tuesday delivering tributes to retiring Sen. Trent Lott, right, who is ending a 35-year career in elected office this week, as they did debating the war.
FAREWELL: Senators spent as much time Tuesday delivering tributes to retiring Sen. Trent Lott, right, who is ending a 35-year career in elected office this week, as they did debating the war.
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Congressional Democrats’ yearlong campaign to bring the war in Iraq to an end concluded with a whimper Tuesday as the Senate failed again to pass a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops from the conflict.

As they have all year, Senate Republicans prevented the move to set dates by which the president would have to begin and complete bringing American forces home.

And Democratic leaders gave in to demands from the Bush administration for more money for the war without any congressionally imposed restrictions. The latest $70 billion in war funding was incorporated into a $555-billion omnibus spending bill that will fund most of the federal government next year.

“In the end, we had very little leverage to do anything,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said as the once-heated war debate closed with little suspense and no drama.

Senators spent as much time Tuesday delivering tributes to retiring Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott -- the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, who is leaving in the middle of his term -- as they did debating the war.

The four senators seeking the Democratic presidential nomination -- Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Barack Obama of Illinois -- missed the debate.

And even the most fervent antiwar groups seemed resigned to defeat. Tuesday afternoon, a pair of Code Pink protesters, members of a group that all year has disrupted congressional hearings and committee meetings on the war, stood quietly in a corridor connecting the Capitol with a Senate office building.

House and Senate Democratic leaders, who have been laboring for months on the long-overdue spending measure, had pledged this fall to resist White House pressure to approve unrestricted funding for the war in Iraq, as they did earlier this year.

Democrats dismissed Pentagon warnings that the lack of funding would create massive disruptions for the military.

And on Monday, the House passed a $516-billion version of the omnibus spending bill that did not include Iraq funding; House leaders limited war-related money to use in Afghanistan.

But that approach didn’t stand a chance in the closely divided Senate, where the 49-member Republican caucus has been able to block Democratic restrictions on the war all year.

Tuesday was no different.

Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), backed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pushed a proposal to require the withdrawal of most U.S. troops within nine months.

It won just 24 votes, far shy of the 60-vote supermajority required for amending the spending bill. Not a single Republican voted for it.

In a separate bid to get more GOP support, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who has helped lead the Senate Democratic legislative campaign on the war, backed away from his yearlong effort to push for a withdrawal timeline.

Instead, he offered a nonbinding measure that simply urged the president to begin limiting the mission of U.S. troops in Iraq to protecting American personnel, training Iraqis and conducting counterterrorism operations.

The proposal, which closely resembled a compromise proposal that had been pushed all year by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), set a goal of completing the transition by the end of 2008.

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), who has not previously voted for legislation challenging the president’s war strategy, agreed to cosponsor the amendment. But Levin’s proposal still attracted just six Republican votes and fell 10 short of the 60-vote threshold.

By contrast, the move by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to attach additional Iraq war funding to the spending bill got 70 votes, as 21 Democrats and an independent joined 48 Republicans in backing the proposal.

“Attacks on American troops are down. Civilian casualties around Baghdad are down,” McConnell said. “A lot has changed in Iraq. And here in Washington, we should take notice. . . . We must not impose an arbitrary timeline for withdrawal.”

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the only GOP presidential contender in the Senate, spoke passionately in favor of additional funding for the war and voted against the Levin and Feingold measures.

The omnibus bill, including the war funding, passed the Senate 76-17. It will now go back to the House, where a coalition of Republicans and centrist Democrats are expected to provide enough votes to send it to President Bush. The White House has indicated he will sign a measure that provides unrestricted money for the war.

Feingold, who has pushed his Democratic colleagues all year to take on the president more aggressively, struck a defiant tone in the face of the latest defeat on Capitol Hill for war opponents.

“We have a lot of important priorities here, but nothing is more important to me or my constituents than ending this disastrous war,” Feingold said on the Senate floor.

“As I do every year, I held a town hall meeting in every county in Wisconsin this year,” he said. “They weren’t asking us to give the president more time for his so-called surge. Like Americans all across the country, they want an end to this war, and they want to know what’s stopping us.”

But the tumult that gripped the Capitol earlier this year when congressional Democrats began their push against the president’s troop escalation was notably missing Tuesday.

And the vote tallies underscored how little progress Democrats have made in the face of Republican opposition this year. With only 50 votes, the Levin measure fared no better than earlier proposals that failed in July and November. Feingold’s proposal -- though it had a record 17 cosponsors, including California Democrat Barbara Boxer -- attracted five fewer votes than it did in May.