Friday, June 23, 2006

The Republican-controlled Senate yesterday soundly rejected two Democratic proposals to withdraw troops from Iraq, turning back the Democrats’ argument that there should be a clear policy change in the war.

“Withdrawal is not an option. Surrender is not a solution,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican.

A proposal by Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, requiring redeployment of combat troops from Iraq by July 2007 failed 86-13, garnering no Republican votes and the support of just 12 Democrats and Democrat-leaning independent James M. Jeffords of Vermont.

“Redeploying United States troops is necessary for success in Iraq, and it is necessary to be able to fight a more effective war on terror,” Mr. Kerry said. “We helped make the policy that put them there, we ought to help make the policy that helps to get them out.”

He said his plan — which would require a “redeployment” of combat troops, leaving in place counterterrorism units and those protecting U.S. facilities — would empower Iraqis to truly take over their own security. Hours after the vote, Mr. Kerry used his proposal to drum up support, sending an e-mail to supporters, praising the plan and those who backed it, bashing the Bush administration and vowing to keep fighting.

“Ending the Bush administration’s disastrous approach to this war isn’t about counting votes,” the note read. “It’s about applying constant pressure to change a broken course.”

Eleven of the 13 senators who supported Mr. Kerry’s plan had voted against the use of force in Iraq in 2002, or weren’t in the Senate at that time. But Mr. Kerry and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa both supported the use of force initially, and then voted yesterday for the strict withdrawal deadline.

“They were just looking for a political opening and I think they really messed up,” Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, said of the Democrats’ strategy. “People see that things are moving [in Iraq]. This was a good week for Republicans.”

Vice President Dick Cheney also criticized the Democrats’ efforts, saying in a CNN interview that “absolutely the worst possible thing we could do at this point would be to validate and encourage the terrorists by doing exactly what they want us to do, which is to leave.”

Some Republicans said Mr. Kerry’s election-year call for troop withdrawal contradicts statements he made during the 2004 presidential campaign, accusing President Bush of considering dangerous withdrawals of troops from Iraq for political reasons.

“In fact, I fear that in the run-up to the 2004 election, the administration is considering what is tantamount to a cut-and-run strategy,” Mr. Kerry said in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in December 2003. “Their sudden embrace of accelerated Iraqification and American troop withdrawal dates, without adequate stability, is an invitation to failure. The hard work of rebuilding Iraq must not be dictated by the schedule of the next American election.”

But Republicans used yesterday’s vote for political points, too. The National Republican Senatorial Committee quickly sent out an e-mail yesterday bashing Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat running for re-election in New Jersey, for supporting Mr. Kerry’s plan. A spokesman said it “puts him not just on the fringe of American politics, but also on the fringe of the Democrat Party.”

Democrats, meanwhile, were split yesterday, with most instead for a nonbinding “sense of the Senate” resolution by Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, calling for a phased pullout of troops from Iraq, starting Dec. 31, without specifying an end date.

It lost on a 60-39 vote, mostly along party lines. Six Democrats broke with their party to oppose it and one Republican — Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who is up for re-election — broke from his party to support it.

The two Democratic troop proposals were offered as amendments to the massive defense authorization bill, which the Senate eventually approved yesterday 96-0.

During the Iraq debate, both parties staked out their election-year positions on the war. Republicans said it was dangerous to abandon the fragile new Iraqi government just as it is stabilizing, and that the Democratic proposals, especially Mr. Kerry’s, would have sent the wrong message to U.S. troops.

“The only ones who would win by us setting a date certain … is al Qaeda,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican. “The result of today’s debate sends a strong message to our men and women in the Middle East that the country is behind them.”

“A failed state in Iraq would pose a clear, present and enduring threat,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. “We’ve just one choice in Iraq and that is to see our mission there through to victory.”

Democrats in turn, stressed that while they may be split on the time-frame issue, they all agree it’s high time to set a course to end U.S. involvement in Iraq unlike Republicans. Mr. Bush’s open-ended policy is costing too many lives and causing Iraqis to become dependent on the United States, they said.

“That we are to stand by the president, right or not, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but it’s morally treasonable to the American people,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “I believe it is long past time to change course in Iraq.”

Mr. Reid voted to authorize force against Iraq in 2002, but supported Mr. Levin’s proposal yesterday because he said “much has happened in Iraq since that fateful day, at a great price.”

“Iraq is ultimately the responsibility of the Iraqis. We cannot forever do the job for them,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat who supported Mr. Levin’s proposal, but agreed with most Democrats that Mr. Kerry’s strict deadline wasn’t a wise policy.

• Charles Hurt contributed to this report.

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