Apr 27 2007
By David Espo
WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a bold wartime challenge to President Bush, the Democratic-controlled Congress cleared legislation Thursday to begin withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by Oct. 1 with a goal of a complete pullout six months later. The White House dismissed the legislation as “dead before arrival.”
The 51-46 Senate vote was largely along party lines, and like House passage a day earlier it underscored that the war’s congressional opponents are far short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a Bush veto.
Democrats marked Thursday’s final passage with a news conference during which they repeatedly urged Bush to reconsider his veto threat. “This bill for the first time gives the president of the United States an exit strategy” from Iraq, said Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin.
The legislation is “in keeping with what the American people want,” added Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
The White House was unmoved. “The president’s determined to win in Iraq. I think the bill that they sent us today is mission defeated,” said deputy press secretary Dana Perino. “This bill is dead before arrival.”
Sessions, Shelby critical
Alabama’s two senators criticized the vote.
“Today, we have put an arbitrary deadline on our military. It is unequivocally the wrong message — at exactly the wrong time,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa. “We must give our armed forces the opportunity to win. We cannot tie the hands of our commanders on the ground. We cannot have 535 generals micromanaging the war from the halls of Congress.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, said, “Our troops ... should not have to worry about whether politicians in Washington are going to provide them with the funding they need to get the job done.
“After the president vetoes the war supplemental, Congress should immediately send him a bill that provides the necessary funding, but does not impose a political deadline for withdrawal.”
Given the standoff, Republicans and Democrats alike already were maneuvering for position on a follow-up bill.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the just-passed legislation as “political posturing” by Democrats that deserves the veto it will receive. “The solution is simple: Take out the surrender date, take out the pork and get the funds to our troops,” he said.
The bill would provide $124.2 billion, more than $90 billion of which would go for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Democrats added billions more for domestic programs, and while most of the debate focused on the troop withdrawal issue, some of the extra spending also has drawn Bush’s criticism.
Several Democratic officials have said they expect the next measure after the veto will jettison the withdrawal timetable.
a concession to Bush. At the same time, they say they hope to include standards for the Iraqi government to meet on issues such as expanding democratic participation and allocating oil resources.
Bush and congressional Republicans, eager to signal the public that they do not support an open-ended commitment to Iraq, have both embraced these so-called benchmarks. Unlike Democrats, they generally oppose using benchmarks to require specific actions, such as troop withdrawals.
Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, said at a news conference that the purpose of benchmarks should be to “see how the Iraqi government is doing,” rather than to establish deadlines for a troop withdrawal.
Opinion on the issue covered a wide spectrum. “The only good measure that exists in Iraq now is body counts, and that’s not a very good measure,” said Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, a moderate Democrat.
Congress acted as the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, said at a Pentagon news conference that the U.S. mission “may get harder before it gets easier.”
Less than three months after Bush announced an increase in troop strength and a shift in tactics, Petraeus said improvements were evident in both Baghdad and the Anbar Province in western Iraq. At the same time, he said the accomplishments “have not come without sacrifice” and that greater American losses have resulted from increased car bombings and suicide attacks, plus the greater concentration of U.S. troops among the Iraqi population.
There were no surprises in the Senate vote, in which 48 Democrats and one independent joined Republicans Gordon Smith of Oregon and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska in supporting the bill. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who typically votes with the Democrats, sided with 45 Republicans in opposition.
In a clear warning to the White House, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, opposed the legislation but issued a statement saying her patience with the war was limited.
“If the president’s new strategy does not demonstrate significant results by August, then Congress should consider all options including a redefinition of our mission and a gradual but significant withdrawal of our troops next year,” she said. Like Hagel and Smith, Collins is coming up on a 2008 re-election campaign.
Democrats have long argued that Republicans must choose between a politically unpopular war on the one hand and a president of their own party on the other.
The legislation requires a troop withdrawal to begin July 1 if Bush cannot certify that the Iraqi government is making progress in disarming militias, reducing sectarian violence and forging political agreements, otherwise by Oct. 1.
While the beginning of a withdrawal is mandated, the balance of the pullback is merely advisory, to take place by April 1, 2008.
Troops could remain after that date to conduct counterterrorism missions, protect U.S. facilities and personnel and train Iraqi security forces.
The war aside, Democrats included more than $10 billion in the legislation that Bush did not ask for. Included was $3.5 billion for the victims of Hurricane Katrina; $2.3 billion for homeland security and smaller amounts for rural schools, firefighting, children’s health care and other programs.