By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 17, 2007
The Senate yesterday soundly rejected a symbolic bid to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq within a year, underscoring the lingering divisions within the Democratic Party over how hard to push President Bush to end the war.
Despite heavy public opposition to the conflict, 19 Democrats broke with their party's antiwar leadership to oppose cutting off funding by March 31, 2008, joining 47 Republicans and one independent in the 67 to 29 vote against the measure. The Senate's four Democratic presidential candidates were among the supporters of the measure, offered as an amendment to an unrelated bill, as House and Senate leaders prepared to negotiate a spending package that would fund the war through September.
In the nearly four months that Congress has debated the U.S. military role in Iraq, both parties have demonstrated remarkable unity. The vote yesterday represented an unusual departure for Democrats, who otherwise overwhelmingly agree that Congress must place legislative restrictions on Bush's war authority. But unlike in the House, where a large majority of Democrats would push Bush much further than he wants to go, the more moderate Senate includes many Democrats from the South and Midwest who remain unwilling to dictate specific terms for how and when the war should end.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said talks will begin as early as today on crafting a spending bill that he hopes Bush will sign, with restrictions that lawmakers from both parties are seeking. Bush vetoed the first version of the bill over withdrawal language, and the White House has warned that the House's second effort, which would guarantee funding only through July, would meet the same fate.
Wary of holding up troop funding, Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) warned that a week-long Memorial Day recess will be canceled unless negotiations are completed by May 25. The Senate leader also cautioned Republicans not to interpret yesterday's vote as a sign that Democratic resolve is weakening in the final stretch.
Although the spending bill is expected to provide the full $95 billion that Bush is seeking for Iraq and Afghanistan, Reid asserted: "He's not going to have the blank check. There's a Congress, and he has to deal with us."
Despite the defections, most Democrats did support the amendment. Its author, Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), a longtime war opponent, noted that Republicans had taunted Democrats throughout the spring to bring the funding question to a vote.
"Well, today a majority of the Democratic senators said it is time to end the mission as we have it, and to bring this mistake to an end. That is a huge change," Feingold said.
Yet, even some of Feingold's allies had reservations about supporting such a drastic step. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), the 2008 Democratic presidential front-runner, has long opposed setting a withdrawal date. But she voted for the Feingold measure as a message to Bush. Later, she sought to distance herself from the amendment by stressing its procedural nature, though when pressed by reporters, she acknowledged that she supports the Feingold proposal. Still, she said, "I'm not going to speculate on what I'm going to be voting on in the future."
A second amendment, setting political benchmarks for the Iraqi government while requiring the White House to meet new reporting requirements, was rejected 52 to 44, with seven Democrats and one independent voting for it, along with most Republicans. Like the withdrawal amendment, it required 60 votes to pass.
The House bill also includes benchmarks, and they are almost certain to be included in a final spending agreement, along with consequences if the Iraqi government falls short. The unanswered questions are what the consequences will be, and what will trigger them.
Bush "is going to get more accountability than he's ever faced" on the war, vowed House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.).
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the benchmarks are a near-certainty. "The Iraqi government, it strikes me, needs to understand that they're running out of time to get their part of the job done," McConnell said.
But senior House Democratic leadership aides said Democrats would not offer any more concessions until the White House comes to them with a realistic proposal. Democratic negotiators said the administration has offered little beyond Bush's assurances last week that he would accept the benchmarks that he himself had proposed in January.
The Senate votes yesterday represented an effort by Reid to expedite the final talks on the spending bill, while allowing lawmakers to express their views through formal votes. The amendments were proposed to an unrelated water-resources bill, while the spending legislation is moving on a separate track, and is scheduled for a pro forma Senate vote today. Once that hurdle is cleared, formal negotiations with the House can begin.
Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.