Republicans Soften Stance on Pullout Language

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) campaigned over the weekend in Littleton, N.H. He returned to Washington for the Senate vote on Iraq war spending, calling the bill a
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) campaigned over the weekend in Littleton, N.H. He returned to Washington for the Senate vote on Iraq war spending, calling the bill a "recipe for defeat that the Democrats are trying to foist off on the American people." (By Lee Marriner -- Associated Press)
By Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Unwilling to do the White House's heavy lifting on Iraq, Senate Republicans are prepared to step aside to allow language requiring troop withdrawals to reach President Bush, forcing him to face down Democratic adversaries with his veto pen.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) announced the shift in strategy yesterday, as the chamber took up a $122 billion war spending package that includes a target date of March 31, 2008, for ending most U.S. combat operations in Iraq. The provision, along with a similar House effort, represents the Democrats' boldest challenge on the war, setting the stage for a dramatic showdown with Bush over an otherwise popular bill to keep vital military funds flowing.

Republicans will still attempt to remove the deadline in a Senate vote expected as soon as today, and GOP leaders were reasonably confident they would muster a majority. But the margin is expected to be thin, requiring the presence of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had skipped several previous Iraq votes to attend presidential campaign events. McCain canceled a series of fundraisers and meetings in Florida to return to Washington, telling a conservative radio program that he wanted to "beat back this recipe for defeat that the Democrats are trying to foist off on the American people."

No matter the outcome of the Senate vote, McConnell is looking ahead, assuming House Democrats will insist that withdrawal conditions be included when a final bill is sent to Bush. If so, McConnell said, Republicans would forgo the parliamentary tactics they used to block antiwar legislation that had forced Democrats to amass an insurmountable 60 votes to prevail.

"We need to get the bill on down to the president and get the veto out of the way," McConnell said.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino reiterated yesterday Bush's strong opposition to the Senate plan. "We would object to people taking out flexibility for commanders on the ground," she said. Referring to additional sweeteners in the bill, to make it more attractive to individual senators, she added: "And we also object to extra domestic spending that is used to buy votes in order to get to a simple majority vote that is not going to be able to sustain a veto."

As the Senate debate began, Democrats reveled in new evidence suggesting that the party has strong public support for setting an end date. A new Pew Research Center poll found that 59 percent of people surveyed want their congressional representative to support a bill calling for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq by August 2008, the deadline set in the House version of the spending bill, which passed by a 218 to 212 vote on Friday. Thirty-three percent of respondents said they wanted their representative to oppose it.

"The Democratic-controlled Congress is listening to the American people," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). Democrats could have raised procedural objections, forcing Republicans to find 60 votes to strike the withdrawal language. Reid, like McConnell, did not want to slow the process, but he also sought to put his Republican colleagues on the spot. "He wants every senator on the record," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said.

Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.), the senior Republican on the Appropriations Committee and sponsor of the amendment to strike the withdrawal provision, said he hopes the GOP strategy will induce the White House and Democrats to begin final negotiations sooner. He also acknowledged the political peril Republicans face every time they are required to vote in defense of an increasingly unpopular war.

"We're part of the problem if this doesn't work," Cochran said. Ultimately, Iraq is Bush's battle, he said, and both parties are taking a risk by interfering. "Let him and the commanders in the field figure out a way to win," Cochran said.

Cochran's amendment would remove language that sets the withdrawal goal of March 31, 2008, while requiring troops to begin leaving Iraq within four months of enactment. But it would leave in place a set of nonbinding benchmarks for the Iraqi government that were added last week to win over Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), a conservative Democrat.

The benchmarks, originally proposed by the administration, are widely supported in the Senate, including by many of Bush's allies on the war. "They're a message, but they're not tied to a deadline," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), a staunch war supporter.

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