The Senate on Thursday gave President Obama breathing room to plot a new Afghanistan strategy free from interference, rejecting efforts to pit him against his military commanders’ advice.
In two votes the Senate rejected Republicans’ attempt to tie Mr. Obama’s hands and instead backed the Democrats’ amendment that puts off any hearings from military commanders until after Mr. Obama makes his final decision on a new strategy in Afghanistan.
Republicans had insisted Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, testify before Congress on his belief that without more troops sent to the region, the war there will be lost. But Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Congress didn’t tie President George W. Bush’s hands when he was planning the troop surge in Iraq, and that lawmakers should give Mr. Obama the same leeway as he decides whether to send more troops to Afghanistan.
“Nobody tried to have a hearing at that time,” Mr. Levin said. “We should follow that same pattern here. We should allow this deliberative process to take place. We should not try to intrude upon it.”
For his part, Gen. McChrystal continued to make the case that time is critical and a new strategy is needed. In a speech Thursday in London, he said there is a “huge risk” al Qaeda terrorists will regroup and use Afghanistan as a safe haven unless the U.S. starts using new tactics, according to the Associated Press.
Gen. McChrystal delivered an assessment weeks ago to Mr. Obama that says if troops aren’t increased, the war there could be lost. The assessment was leaked to the press, and since then Mr. Obama has had to fend off questions about the pace of his decisionmaking.
But Gen. McChrystal has not sent the president a specific troop request yet, and Mr. Obama says he’s waiting for that information before he concludes his deliberations.
Republicans said by delaying, Mr. Obama is endangering troops. Some Republicans also say they fear Mr. Obama will make a political decision instead to reduce troops - a course many senators in his party’s liberal wing would like to see.
The Senate is debating its defense spending bill and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, proposed an amendment requiring military commanders to testify in the matter. He said without that, senators will not have the information they need.
“Unfortunately now Congress must rely on news outlets for access to our military leaders,” he said after the vote.
Mr. McCain’s amendment failed on a party-line vote, 59-40, while Mr. Levin’s amendment passed 60-39. Sen. George V. Voinovich, Ohio Republican, voted for both measures.
Mr. McCain called for a Nov. 15 deadline for three military commanders and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan to testify before Congress. Mr. Levin countered by putting off hearings until after Mr. Obama makes his decision, and said the hearings “should” include top officials.
Even though Mr. Levin’s amendment doesn’t specifically require anyone to appear, he told reporters he expects the top military leaders to testify. He said the Pentagon has indicated a willingness to have them talk to Congress - but only after the president concludes his deliberations.
In a letter to the Senate, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said “it would be inappropriate” to discuss the advice they are giving Mr. Obama until after the president has made his decision.
He also said Gen. McChrystal’s assessment is just one of the factors the military is considering, and said “other options and perspectives will also be included” as the Pentagon makes its recommendations.