May 17 2007

Senate Dems fail to cut war funding

The Associated Press- Tuscaloosa News

By David Espo

WASHINGTON | Anti-war Democrats in the Senate failed in an attempt to cut off funds for the Iraq war on Wednesday, a lopsided bipartisan vote that masked growing impatience within both political parties over President Bush’s handling of the four-year conflict.

The 67-29 vote against the Democrats’ measure left it far short of the 60 needed to advance. But more than half the Senate’s Democrats supported the move, a marked change from last summer when only a dozen members of the rank and file backed a troop withdrawal deadline.

“It was considered absolute heresy four months ago” to stop the war, said Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, author of the measure to cut off funds for most military operations after March 31, 2008. Nowhere was the shift more evident than among the Senate’s Democratic presidential contenders.

Republicans, including Alabama’s two Republican senators, Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, voted unanimously against the measure, and several judged it harshly. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the GOP leader, said it fixed a “surrender date” for the United States.

Shelby said he hopes the overwhelming defeat of the measure is a sign that the Senate can reach a compromise on funding the war that does not include withdrawal dates.

“I think it breathes some reality into the situation — the political situation on the hill,” Shelby said in a phone interview following the vote.

For the first time, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Barack Obama of Illinois and Joe Biden of Delaware joined Sen. Chris Dodd in lending support to the notion of setting a date to end U.S. participation in the war.

Among them, only Clinton stressed the procedural nature of her vote, declining to say she would ultimately vote to cut off funding if given a chance. “I’m not going to speculate on what I’ll be voting on in the future,” she told reporters, although her spokesman, Philippe Reines, said flatly that the New York lawmaker supports the legislation.

Alabama’s Shelby said he would not be opposed to legislation that includes goals or benchmarks for the fledgling Iraqi government, even though he supported the president’s veto of the Iraq war funding bill passed by the Senate last month with a timetable for withdrawal.

“I think we have to start with the basic premise that whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican that we’re all concerned with the situation in Iraq – and frustrated,” he said.

There were 28 Democrats in favor of advancing the bill, and 19 opposed.

“An arbitrary cutoff date would take away an important negotiating tool,” said Sen. Jim Webb, of Virginia, a Democratic critic of the war elected to his first term last November. He noted that the administration had recently taken steps to engage Iran in diplomacy in hopes of easing the sectarian violence in neighboring Iraq.

The vote occurred as Congress pursued multiple objectives in connection with a war that has claimed the lives of more than 3,400 U.S. troops.

Congressional leaders hope to send Bush legislation by the end of next week providing more than $90 billion to pay for the war through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, and at least part of the reason for the day’s events was to give lawmakers an outlet for their unhappiness.

Several Republicans, led by Sen. John Warner of Virginia, proposed legislation that threatened a reduction in reconstruction funds if the Iraqi government fails to make progress toward a series of military and political goals, and provides for outside experts to report to lawmakers on the subject.

“The Iraqi government, it strikes me, needs to understand that they’re running out of time to get their part of the job done,” said McConnell.

But the same proposal would have given Bush authority to waive the requirement for Iraqi progress, and it drew objections from Democrats as a result.

“It is really very tepid, very weak,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

In the end, the vote was 52-44, more than a majority but less than the 60 needed to advance under the rules in effect.

While Feingold’s attempt to cut off funds is likely to recede into the background, at least for the time being, the suggestion that the Iraqis be held to account for their promises to foster democracy and strengthen their own military has wide currency within Congress.

“We have to make certain that [troops] do receive the funds that they need,” said Durbin, D-Ill. “But we need to do it in the context of changing this policy. And I think our votes today are an indication that that sentiment is growing.”

Bush, too, has said he is willing to accept so-called benchmarks within legislation that provides the funds the Pentagon needs, although so far, he has not agreed to enforcement measures that might reduce reconstruction funds ticketed for Iraq.

That is one of the issues that is likely to surface — if it hasn’t already — in secretive talks that Reid and McConnell have held in recent days with White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten in hopes of forging a compromise war funding bill.

Warner’s measure also said the United States should begin a withdrawal if the Iraqi government requests one, another idea that is quietly gaining support in Congress.

At the White House, deputy press secretary Dana Perino said: “The U.N. Security Council resolution, which provides the present basis for coalition forces in Iraq, has always been subject to termination by the Iraqi government. So this is nothing new.”

There is relatively little controversy over the amount of money to be provided for the Pentagon, but Bush and congressional Republicans object to billions of dollars in domestic spending that Democrats favor.

Of less concern to the White House is a Democratic attempt to add a minimum wage increase to the measure. It calls for three increases of 70 cents an hour over the next two years, and would provide the first raise in more than a decade in the federal wage floor.

The debate over Iraq has dominated the work of the Democratic-controlled Congress this year, and in recent weeks, Republicans, too, have begun to show their impatience with the war.

A group of 11 moderate House Republicans met with Bush and several top advisers at the White House recently, bluntly telling him that the party’s political prospects in 2008 were in jeopardy as a result of the war.

Several GOP lawmakers in both houses have said they are looking for a significant change in the war by September, signaling they could part company with the president as the 2008 election year draws close.

Tuscaloosa News Washington Correspondent Laura Onstot contributed to this report.