Senate Democrats Float War Bill Similar to That in House

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 22, 2007

Senate Democrats unveiled an emergency spending bill that would continue funding the conflict in Iraq while requiring U.S. troop withdrawals to begin this summer, a proposal that tracks closely with one the House will vote on tomorrow.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to approve $122 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today, along with language that would set a March 31, 2008, goal for ending most combat operations in Iraq. Despite differences between the House and Senate versions, including over the timetable for withdrawing troops, and despite repeated White House veto threats, both packages represent a significant stiffening of Democratic resolve to stop the war next year.

Democratic leaders reached an important milestone yesterday by winning the support of Sen. Ben Nelson, a conservative Democrat from Nebraska and a member of the appropriations panel who last week had opposed a resolution that set an identical withdrawal schedule. Nelson reversed his stance when leaders agreed to add a nonbinding set of benchmarks for the Iraqi government. "I'm looking to find a way to support it," Nelson said, explaining his request for the language.

House Democrats were still trying yesterday to round up votes for a $124 billion war-spending bill that would establish strict readiness standards for deploying troops and a deadline of Aug. 31, 2008, for the removal of combat forces. Democrats larded the bill with special projects to build support for it.

With Republicans largely united in opposition, and some conservative and liberal Democrats still balking, senior Democrats conceded they may not know the outcome until the roll is called. The vote had been scheduled for today, but last night it was moved to Friday, with debate starting today. "We're struggling," conceded Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.).

Democrats did pick up their first Republican supporter yesterday. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.) attended the funeral of slain soldier Tuesday -- the 25th from his Eastern Shore district -- and later described a "sense of despair" that is descending on the American people.

Gilchrest said he is inclined to vote for the bill because "it's a powerful signal that the policy in Iraq is not right and must be changed."

The Senate debate over Iraq spending is expected to begin next week, and it promises to be a similar cliffhanger. Under Senate rules, Republicans will need 60 votes to strip the withdrawal language from the bill -- and Democrats will need 60 votes to pass the package as is.

House Democrats said that whatever the outcome, they will insist during final negotiations that withdrawal criteria be included.

The White House has already made several harshly worded veto threats over the Democrats' legislative efforts to withdraw troops. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the withdrawal language "a poison pill" and vowed to strip it from the funding package.

Senate Republicans believe they hold the upper hand in the Iraq debate, arguing that Democrats are not only far from the two-thirds majority required to override a presidential veto but also far short of the 60 votes they need to get around a filibuster. Last week's Iraq withdrawal effort was defeated 48-50, with Nelson and Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) opposing it and one Republican, Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, defecting from the GOP.

Winning the support of Nelson, a cautious Midwesterner, is the latest in a series of incremental yet significant steps as Democrats seek to force Bush to change direction in Iraq. Senate Democratic leaders hope the additions they made to win over Nelson will entice some Republican war critics to break ranks. Unlike previous efforts, the spending bill could prove hard for senators to resist, because it includes funding for active-duty troops and veterans services, including health care.

Under the Senate funding bill, redeployments would begin within four months, with most combat forces withdrawn by March 31, 2008. A limited number of troops would remain in Iraq to provide training and security and to combat terrorism.

The benchmarks Nelson requested are based on steps Bush laid out in January and are aimed at setting clearly defined goals for the Iraqi government as conditions for continued U.S. involvement. The list includes disarming militias, strengthening the authority of Iraqi commanders and equitably distributing oil revenue. To rally support for the benchmarks, Nelson collaborated with several Republicans, including Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, the second-ranking GOP member of the Armed Services Committee. But those efforts never came to fruition.

Unlike in the House, where Democratic leaders have struggled to win over liberal antiwar lawmakers, the biggest challenge in the Senate has been to convince conservative Democrats that an activist approach to Iraq is not politically dangerous. The one Senate Democrat still uncommitted on the spending bill is Pryor, who has objected to setting public timetables for withdrawing troops.

Although the March 31, 2008, date is described in the legislation as a goal, an aide said Pryor will spend the weekend weighing his vote.

Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company