By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Senate Democrats scored a surprise victory yesterday in their bid to force President Bush to end the Iraq war, turning back a Republican amendment that would have struck a troop withdrawal plan from emergency military funding legislation.
The defection of a prominent Republican war critic, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, sealed the Democrats' win. Hagel, who opposed identical withdrawal language two weeks ago, walked onto the Senate floor an hour before the late-afternoon vote and announced that he would "not support sustaining a flawed and failing policy," adding: "It's now time for the Congress to step forward and establish responsible boundaries and conditions for our continued military involvement in Iraq."
Democratic leaders think the 50 to 48 victory greatly strengthens their negotiating position as they prepare to face down a White House that yesterday reiterated its threat of a presidential veto. The Senate vote was also the first time since Democrats took control of Congress in January that a majority of lawmakers have supported binding legislation to bring U.S. troops home.
The Senate withdrawal provision, which sets a March 31, 2008, target for ending U.S. combat operations, is tucked into a $122 billion package to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, a must-pass bill that Democrats view as their best shot at forcing Bush to change direction. The withdrawal language was nearly identical to that of a Senate resolution rejected 50 to 48 two weeks ago.
Top Democrats in the House and the Senate had been uncertain about the outcome of the vote when they convened for a joint leadership meeting yesterday morning. They were convinced that defeat of the Senate's proposed timeline would force negotiators to soften the House language, which sets a firm deadline of Aug. 31, 2008, for the removal of U.S. combat forces. But they concluded that a Democratic victory would give them no reason to compromise, according to House Democratic leadership aides.
Speaking to reporters, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) was conciliatory, but only to a point: "We ought to reach out to the president and say, 'Mr. President, this is not a unilateral government. It is a separation of powers, and the Congress of the United States . . . has taken some action. You obviously disagree with that. Where are the areas of compromise?' "
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) said he was skeptical about proceeding too quickly. "Of course, we should reach out to the White House, and I'm happy to do that," he said. But, he added: "They have been very uncooperative to this point. Hopefully, they will cooperate with us." Referring to the president, he said, "I would like to have a bill that he wouldn't veto."
Senate GOP leaders remain confident that Bush will ultimately prevail. "I expect the president to get the money for the troops, to get this bill in large measure like he wants it," predicted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). "It may take two tries to get there, but I think that's very likely going to be the final outcome."
But Democrats are just as convinced that they have the momentum on the issue. "This is not one battle. It's a long-term campaign," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.). "Every time we have a vote like this, it ratchets up the pressure on the president and on many of those of his party."
Under the Senate bill, which is slated for a vote on final passage as early as today, certain U.S. troops would remain in Iraq after the March 31, 2008, target date in order to conduct counterterrorism training and security operations. But troop withdrawals would begin within four months of enactment.
The White House has strongly protested both the House and Senate bills, issuing a series of veto threats. "This bill assumes and forces the failure of the new strategy even before American commanders in the field are able to fully implement their plans," the administration said in a statement yesterday, referring to the Senate measure.
Democrats and Republicans largely remained united in the Senate vote, with only Hagel and Sen. Gordon Smith (Ore.) on the GOP side voting to preserve the withdrawal provision, and Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.) the only Democrat to break ranks. Yet, on both sides, several senators remained undecided until the roll was called, and Vice President Cheney was on hand to break a tie in the case of a deadlock.
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said she was torn between her desire to send a strong message to the president that a change of course is needed and her uneasiness about wading into war policymaking. "Clearly it's frustrating," she said of the grim conditions in Iraq. "On the other hand, you don't want to telegraph to the enemy a moment in time" for leaving. Snowe wound up voting with her party.
Because troop funding is at stake, Republicans have decided to forgo maneuvers that could draw out the Senate debate or block final passage, tactics the GOP had used successfully in previous Iraq war showdowns. Some GOP senators even floated the idea of introducing the Iraq war legislation of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as an amendment to the spending bill, in a bid to make political mischief. The Clinton proposal would cap troop levels, start a phased withdrawal and cut off Iraqi security funding under some circumstances, but so far has attracted no co-sponsors.
Reid said final negotiations between the House and the Senate will take place after the spring recess. Despite signs that Democrats are slowly building support for their position, they are still nowhere close to achieving the two-thirds House and Senate majorities that would be necessary to override a Bush veto.
Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.