Senate Democrats yesterday failed to get enough votes for a bill to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq by next March, the first test of new Democratic leaders who will spend the next weeks challenging President Bush’s war strategy.
Senators rejected on a near party-line 50-48 vote the proposal by Majority Leader Harry Reid that called for troops to start leaving Iraq in four months.
Only one Republican — Sen. Gordon H. Smith of Oregon — backed the proposal. Just two Democrats — Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas — joined Democrat-leaning independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut in opposing it. Two senators — Democrat Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Republican John McCain of Arizona — did not vote.
Earlier, on the other side of the Capitol, a Democratic war-spending plan cleared its first hurdle yesterday in the House Appropriations Committee, setting the stage for a floor battle next week. That measure, which passed on a mostly party-line vote, puts a framework to withdraw U.S. troops by September 2008 as a condition on a $124 billion supplemental appropriation bill that funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Leaders from both parties hailed the Senate vote as a victory.
“We’ve had a very good day for the Democrats,” Mr. Reid said.
Five minutes later, Republicans came to the microphones with a similar message.
“I think this is a good day,” Republican Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi said.
“Well obviously I’m very pleased,” agreed Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
Democrats said they did not look at the Senate vote as a failure, and pointed out they picked up votes since June, when the Senate voted 60-39 against a nonbinding Democratic resolution calling for the start of troop withdrawal.
“We’re going to continue to pick up steam, because we’re going to continue to make the case that the current course is not successful, and that the way to succeed in Iraq is to change the direction of Iraqi policy and to focus on the Iraqi leaders, putting pressure on them to achieve a political settlement of their differences,” said Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who wrote the withdrawal measure last summer.
Mr. Reid called the day’s events “a process of working every step of the way to bring our troops home.”
Mr. Bush had threatened to veto the Senate bill, which would have required 60 votes to pass but could not muster even a majority.
In a speech last night to the National Republican Congressional Committee, Mr. Bush praised the Senate for having “wisely rejected a resolution that would have placed an artificial timetable on our mission in Iraq.”
He also warned the House against using the war-spending bill “as an opportunity to micromanage our military commanders, or to force a precipitous withdrawal in Iraq, or threaten vital funding for Iraqi security forces, and fund projects that have nothing to do with the war on terror.”
Mr. Nelson and Mr. Pryor had supported their Democratic leaders on procedural votes last month on whether to consider a nonbinding resolution criticizing Mr. Bush’s plans for a troop surge in Iraq.
The two absent senators had very different reasons for missing the vote. Mr. Johnson is recovering from a brain hemorrhage and surgery, while Mr. McCain was in Iowa campaigning for the presidency, which quickly drew political fire.
The senator was putting his “ambition for higher office ahead of a debate and a vote on the future of a policy impacting the lives of those who are serving today,” said Jeremy Funk of anti-war group Americans United for Change.
Mr. McCain also was a no-show for last month’s vote on the Democrats’ nonbinding resolution.
There was just part of a single day for pre-vote debate, much less than usual, but several Democrats stood to condemn the handling of the war, which Monday will enter its fifth year.
“Let this debate mark the beginning of a way out, out, out of Iraq,” said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, lamenting five years of a “misbegotten war.”
But Republicans assailed the Reid measure as giving the insurgents in Iraq a date to mark on their calendars.
“I hope all these deadlines are as confusing to our enemies as they are to everyone else,” said Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican Conference chairman, when excoriating the plan.
Mr. Kyl urged patience to allow Mr. Bush’s surge of nearly 30,000 troops time to work. “The signs of success are unmistakable, and this is the wrong time to be pulling out the rug from under our troops,” he said.
The House supplemental spending plan will be the focus of debate next week when it comes to the floor.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, called the plan “a victory for the American people who want the Congress to do what the president has not: Propose a plan to bring the war to an end.”
The Appropriations Committee voted 36-28 to pass the “emergency” supplemental bill, now totaling $124 billion, which funds the wars but also contains billions in added spending for what Republicans call “unnecessary” projects.
“We still have $25 million for spinach, $50 million for a Capitol Hill power plant, we’ve got $5 million for tropical fish,” said Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio. “We shouldn’t be putting this unnecessary spending on the backs of our soldiers.”
Mr. Boehner said he expects 99 percent of his Republican members to vote against the supplemental-spending bill.
Senators also will consider their version of the supplemental war-spending bill in the coming weeks. They hope to consider it on the floor by the end of this month before Congress goes into a spring recess. Mr. Reid said he might attach yesterday’s defeated resolution as an amendment to the Senate’s supplemental spending bill.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, noted the difficulty balancing her desire to end the war with the need to fund the troops.
“There is no one line item that says ‘War, yes or no,’ ” Miss Mikulski said. “I say to those well-intentioned liberal activists: Know that we’re on your side … [but] I won’t cut off the money going to our kids.”
Also yesterday as part of the Iraq debate, senators approved two nonbinding declarations offering support for the troops.
The Republican measure, authored by Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, said “no funds” would be cut for troops in the field. It passed 82-16.
Democrats countered with a proposal by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington that called for supporting the troops in Iraq and when they come home by taking care of veterans.
Democrats opposing the Gregg measure said it gives Mr. Bush a blank check to do what he wishes in Iraq.
“We’re not just going to be a rubber stamp for the president’s war without end,” said Mrs. Murray, whose resolution passed 96-2.
Joseph Curl and Eric Pfeiffer contributed to this report.