Longer Leaves for Troops Blocked

By Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 20, 2007

Senate Republicans yesterday rejected a bipartisan proposal to lengthen the home leaves of U.S. troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, derailing a measure that war opponents viewed as one of the best chances to force President Bush to accelerate a redeployment of forces.

The proposal, sponsored by Sens. James Webb (D-Va.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), failed on a 56 to 44 vote, with 60 votes needed for passage -- a tally that was virtually identical to a previous vote in July. A last-minute campaign by the Defense Department and the White House to kill the measure won over Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), an influential voice on defense policy who had voted with Webb and Hagel in July.

Warner's defection deflated any momentum that had been building and effectively ensured the legislation's demise. Just six Republicans supported the proposal, one fewer than the previous count.

The vote offered the most vivid evidence yet that the Bush administration still controls Iraq war policy, despite months of congressional debate, the war's persistent unpopularity and a summer-long effort by activists to pressure Republicans. Unless other options with broad appeal emerge soon -- a prospect both parties now say is unlikely -- Bush's plan to keep most troops in Iraq through next summer will remain intact.

"Our Republican colleagues are more interested in protecting our president than our troops," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said moments before the vote, when defeat appeared certain. "This is Bush's war. Don't make it also the Republican senators' war."

Of all the Iraq measures now pending before the Senate, as part of an annual defense policy debate, Democrats had viewed the Webb proposal as one of the few that could gain broad enough support to become law. The measure would have required that troops be granted home leaves at least as long as their most recent combat deployments before being sent back to war. Its focus on troops and their families, rather than on military strategy, had attracted more GOP backing than Democratic bills that had set withdrawal timetables or had targeted war funding.

After the measure's defeat, senators predicted that other Iraq amendments in the queue, including several with bipartisan sponsorship, would meet a similar fate. "I don't think there's going to be any meaningful change of votes or switching until we get into next year," Hagel said.

A former Navy secretary and decorated Marine combat veteran, Webb quietly courted Republicans, tweaking the bill's language and adding clauses to allay their concerns. Exemptions were added for service members who volunteer to return to battle early. Testimony last week from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, that 130,000 troops will remain in place through next summer, seemed to bolster Webb's case that deployment boundaries must be set.

Military families have bemoaned the stress of repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Some military personnel have spent more than half of the past five years deployed in war zones.

"As this debate is going on, I think it's very important that we just put a safety net under our troops, to tell them, to reassure them that however long they're being deployed, they should be able to have that much time, at least, at home, in order to refurbish, retrain, have time with their families and mentally get prepared to go," Webb said.

Reading between the lines, Republicans detected another aim. By limiting the pool of people who would be eligible for deployment, they believed that Democrats were attempting to force the troop reductions that they had failed to bring about legislatively.

The first time Webb offered his amendment, on July 11, it attracted more support than either side anticipated. Reid decided to revive the proposal when Congress resumed the Iraq debate this month. The Democrats' list of GOP targets included Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), George V. Voinovich (Ohio) and Elizabeth Dole (N.C.).

But as Republican interest grew in recent days, party leaders and Pentagon brass fanned out across the Capitol in a campaign to defeat the plan. They called it unconstitutional, difficult to enforce and certain to be vetoed.

On Tuesday, four senators, including Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), met with representatives of the Special Operations Command, who warned that the amendment would wreak havoc on their troops who do not follow regular rotation patterns. Webb responded by adding an exemption for such troops.

Yesterday morning, the Defense Department dispatched Army Lt. Gen. Carter F. Ham, a senior official with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Lt. Gen. James J. Lovelace, a deputy Army chief of staff, to detail all the problems the amendment would cause, Corker said.

Two weeks ago, Corker said, he approached Webb to tell him that he was seriously considering a vote for his measure. Yesterday, Corker said, the Pentagon had made its case. "I like Jim Webb. I know he has a lot of firsthand experience," Corker said. "But I don't think you can do this in the middle of a conflict."

The White House's big breakthrough came yesterday morning, when Warner announced that he had reconsidered. "It's a change of vote for me," said Warner, also a former Navy secretary, who will retire next year after completing five terms. "I recognize that."

Addressing Webb on the Senate floor, Warner explained: "I agree with the principles that you've laid down in your amendment, but I regret to say that I've been convinced by those in the professional uniform that they cannot do it."

Supporters of the Webb plan were visibly deflated. None of the anticipated GOP converts ended up switching their votes. "Senator Warner has enormous credibility and integrity on these questions. He certainly will be influential on anybody that was ambivalent about it," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), a co-sponsor of Webb's proposal.

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