- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 26, 2007

DEVELOPING UPDATE / 2:20 p.m.

WASHINGTON (AP) — A defiant Democratic-controlled Senate passed legislation Thursday that would require the start of troop withdrawals from Iraq by Oct. 1, propelling Congress toward a historic veto showdown with President Bush on the war.

At the White House, the president immediately promised a veto.

“It is amazing that legislation urgently needed to fund our troops took 80 days to make its way around the Capitol. But that’s where we are,” said deputy press secretary Dana Perino.

The 51-46 vote was largely along party lines, and like House passage of the same bill a day earlier, fell far short of the two-thirds margin needed to overturn the president’s threatened veto. Nevertheless, the legislation is the first binding challenge on the war that Democrats have managed to send to Bush since they reclaimed control of both houses of Congress in January.

“The president has failed in his mission to bring peace and stability to the people of Iraq,” said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., chairman of the Appropriations Committee. He later added: “It’s time to bring our troops home from Iraq.”

The $124.2 billion bill requires troop withdrawals to begin Oct. 1, or sooner if the Iraqi government does not meet certain benchmarks. The House passed the measure Wednesday by a 218-208 vote.

Across the Potomac River at the Pentagon, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, told reporters the war effort likely will “get harder before it gets easier.”

Republicans said the vote amounted to little more than political theater because the bill would be dead on arrival after reaching the White House. Bush said he will veto the bill so long as it contains a timetable on Iraq, as well as $20 billion in spending added by Democrats.

“The solution is simple: Take out the surrender date, take out the pork, and get the funds to our troops,” said Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Republicans Gordon Smith of Oregon and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska sided with 48 Democrats and Independent Bernard Sanders in supporting the bill. No Democrats joined the 45 Republicans in voting against it. Missing from the vote were GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both staunch advocates of the president’s Iraq policy.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., sided with Republicans in opposing the bill.

“We delude ourselves if we think we can wave a legislative wand and suddenly our troops in the field will be able to distinguish between al-Qaida terrorism or sectarian violence. Or that Iraqis will suddenly settle their political differences because our troops are leaving,” Lieberman said.

Democrats said the bill was on track to arrive on the president’s desk by Tuesday, the anniversary of Bush’s announcement aboard the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln that major combat operations in Iraq had ended.

“The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on Sept. 11, 2001, and still goes on,” Bush said on May 1, 2003, in front of a huge “Mission Accomplished” banner.

Bush since has acknowledged that the war has not progressed as he had hoped. After the November elections in which Democrats swept up enough seats to take the majority, he announced a new strategy that involved sending additional forces to Iraq.

Perino said earlier that if Democratic lawmakers timed the sending of the bill to the anniversary of Bush’s speech, it would be “a ridiculous P.R. stunt.”

“That is the height of cynicism, and absolutely so unfortunate for the men and women in uniform and their families who are watching the debate,” she said Thursday morning.

As Democrats pushed through the bill, Petraeus depicted the situation in Iraq as “exceedingly complex and very tough.” He said there have been some improvements in the two months since Bush’s troop buildup began, but “there is vastly more work to be done across the board. … We are just getting started with the new effort.”

Asked at a Pentagon news conference Thursday about the impact on the effort in Iraq if that legislation passed, Petraeus said, “I have tried to stay clear of the political minefields of various legislative proposals.”

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told The Associated Press the vote was not helpful.

“We see some negative signs in the decision because it sends wrong signals to some sides that might think of alternatives to the political process,” al-Dabbagh said. “Coalition forces gave lots of sacrifices and they should continue their mission, which is building Iraqi security forces to take over.”

In the House, two Republicans - Reps. Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland and Walter Jones of North Carolina - joined 216 Democrats in passing the bill. Voting no were 195 Republicans and 13 Democrats.

Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said Democrats were still considering what to do after Bush’s veto. One option would be funding the war through September as Bush wants but setting benchmarks that the Iraqi government must meet, he said.

Murtha chairs the House panel that oversees military funding.

“I think everything that passes will have some sort of condition (placed) on it,” he said. Ultimately, Murtha added, the 2008 military budget considered by Congress in June “is where you’ll see the real battle,” he said.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said the immediate focus should stay on the president “making such a tragic mistake in vetoing this.” Eventually, “I think he’s going to have to accept constraint on his bad judgment here… . We’ve got to keep relentlessly putting pressure on him.”

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has said the Army has enough bookkeeping flexibility to pay for operations in Iraq well into July. Lawmakers and Capitol Hill staff aides view mid- to late May as the deadline for completing the war spending bill to avoid hardships.

EARLIER

By S.A. Miller

THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Democrat-led House last night narrowly passed a $124 billion war-funding bill with a timetable to pull out troops from Iraq, voting hours after top U.S. military commanders made a personal appeal to congressional leaders not to meddle in war strategy.

It passed on a 218-208 vote, with Democrats backing by a 216-13 margin a mandate for a troop withdrawal to start no later than October or as soon as July if Iraqis do not meet certain policy benchmarks. Republicans opposed the measure by 195-2.

“This bill gives the president the exit strategy from the Iraqi civil war that up until now he has not had,” said Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat and House Appropriations Committee chairman.

The Senate is expected to approve the pullout plan today and send it to President Bush, who has repeatedly vowed to veto the legislation.

“Tonight, the House of Representatives voted for failure in Iraq and the president will veto its bill,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said after the vote.

Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, said during the floor debate last night that “al Qaeda will view this as the day the House threw in the towel.”

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told lawmakers in a classified briefing that the pullout plan would hurt the war effort, said participants in the meeting.

“They don’t want any restrictions,” said Rep. James P. Moran, a Virginia Democrat who later voted for the withdrawal timetable.

Still, Democratic and Republican leaders came away with distinctly different takes on the briefing.

“This briefing reinforced our view that solution in Iraq is a political solution,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, adding that an imminent U.S. troop withdrawal would pressure Iraqis to mend their country.

“Our belief that we must hold the Iraqis accountable for achieving real progress and establish a timetable for responsible deployment of American forces was also reinforced,” the Maryland Democrat said. “General Petraeus specifically indicated that he is relating to the Iraqis that expectation of the American public.”

The subsequent House vote propelled Congress toward a veto showdown with Mr. Bush that threatens to stall war funds even as the Pentagon raids other military accounts to pay for combat operations until July.

“One thing is clear, we have to get the money to the troops quickly,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

“It needs to be without a surrender date, without any specific time for withdrawal,” he said. “We don’t need to send a memo to our enemies about when we intend to quit. It’s highly demoralizing to our troops and unsettling to our allies.”

After separate meetings with both chambers, Gen. Petraeus said he informed lawmakers that the 30,000-troop surge in Baghdad would not be fully in place until mid-July and it would take until September to tell whether it had succeeded.

“Remember we are in the very early days of this,” Gen. Petraeus said at a Capitol Hill press conference. “We are only about two months into the surge.”

The general said he presented a forthright account of setbacks in the war in Iraq, including recent “spectacular” attacks by al Qaeda, and progress on the battlefront, including Sunni cooperation thwarting al Qaeda in Anbar province and a reduction by nearly one-third in sectarian killings.

He declined to publicly address the pullout bill, saying that he did not think it appropriate for military commanders to “get into the minefield of discussions about various political statements and proposals.”

However, the general said he advised lawmakers to be wary that their words and actions deliver messages to “our coalition partners, the enemy, and frankly the men and women in uniform who are giving their all for this effort.”

His admonition highlighted not only the troop-withdrawal plan approved by the House but also the statement last week by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, that “the war is lost.”

“I’ve seen the publication of that throughout the Middle East,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee. “It must come as a shock to al Qaeda leaders to have an aide come into their safe house and tell them that Senator Reid has declared that, in fact, they are winning and the war is lost.”

Under the legislation, the troop withdrawal would commence July 1 if the Iraqi government does not meet benchmarks, including reducing sectarian violence, establishing a militia-disarmament program and enacting laws to share oil revenue. If Iraqis satisfy the benchmarks, the troops would start to pull out Oct. 1 with a goal of most troops coming home by next April.

The Democratic strategy would limit combat operations by rolling back security patrols by the U.S. military in sectarian hot spots and by barring participation in the systematic search for insurgents tasks typically determined by commanders on the ground and Mr. Bush as the commander in chief.

A presidential veto could come as soon as next week, and then negotiations on war funding begin anew. The close House vote last night and the narrow margin also expected in the Senate make it unlikely Democrats can muster the two-thirds majority in both houses needed to override a veto.


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