GOP foils minimum leave

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Senate Republicans yesterday thwarted Democrats’ effort to set a minimum length for rest time for troops between deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan — saying it was another attempt to “micromanage” military operations.

The measure — the first of several votes expected in the coming days to challenge President Bush’s Iraq war plan — was defeated in a procedural vote, garnering only a 56-41 majority, four votes shy of the needed 60.

“This is another example of how Congress over the years has periodically decided that we’re going to micromanage a situation for our military,” said Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican. “We cannot and should not do that.”

The amendment to the Senate defense authorization bill, authored by Sen. James H. Webb Jr., Virginia Democrat, attracted support from seven Republicans, 48 Democrats and one independent for the measure. No Democrats voted no.

“I regret that we did not reach the 60-vote margin that would have caused this amendment to prevail,” Mr. Webb said. “At the same time, we got a strong majority of the United States Senate to agree that this issue is vital to the well-being of the people who are being sent into harm’s way.”

The amendment said any armed services member deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan would have the same amount of time at home that they serve overseas before being redeployed. It also required that no troops, including those in reserve and National Guard units, could be redeployed to Iraq or Afghanistan within three years of their previous deployment.

“This is the most disappointing vote I’ve had in my first six months in the Senate,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat. “The president and almost three-fourths of Republican senators have again betrayed our soldiers and our Marines and our veterans.”

Republican opponents called Mr. Webb’s proposal unconstitutional because it would have curtailed the president’s authority as commander in chief. Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican who broke rank with his party last week and criticized Mr. Bush’s handling of the war, voted against the amendment.

“The Webb amendment was not the way to go about relieving the pressures they face as members of the armed forces, and it sets a bad precedent for the presidency,” Mr. Domenici said.

Last night, the Senate unexpectedly voted on a similar amendment by antiwar Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska that fell eight votes shy of the 60 needed, 52-45. The measure called to limit the time soldiers can serve in Iraq to 12 consecutive months, and Marines to seven consecutive months.

Democrats plan to introduce a bevy of amendments regarding the Iraq war during the next couple weeks while debating the $649 billion defense authorization act, including a measure calling for withdrawing most U.S. troops from Iraq by April 30.

That amendment, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, calls for a reduction in U.S. armed forces within 120 days of its enactment.

Prospects for a less-sweeping, bipartisan challenge to Mr. Bush suffered a setback when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said the leading proposal has “less teeth than a toothless tiger.”

The measure — proposed by Sens. Ken Salazar, Colorado Democrat, and Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican — would make the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group the basis for future U.S. strategy in Iraq. It sets conditions that could lead to redeployment of combat troops by as early as March 2008 if diplomatic, infrastructure and security benchmarks are met.

Senate Democratic leaders say the situation in Iraq has become so dire that Congress can’t wait for a scheduled September briefing on the war’s progress by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

“Conditions are deteriorating, and more lives are being lost every day,” Mr. Reid said. “Some would rather wait until September before forcing the president to change course. If there were real signs of progress or real reason for hope, that might make sense.”

But Senate Republican leaders said taking action now would undermine the armed forces in Iraq, particularly since the final wave of the recent troop “surge” was deployed only about three weeks ago.

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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