By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 19, 2007; 6:34 PM
The Senate today turned back a measure to require that U.S. troops be given at least as much time at home as they spend on combat tours, shelving an amendment that supporters said was aimed at easing the strain of prolonged military deployments but that opponents argued was intended to undercut the Bush administration's Iraq war policy.
The amendment to a defense programs bill, sponsored by Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), went down when it failed to receive the 60 votes needed for passage. The vote was 56 to 44. A similar measure offered by Webb in July also fell four votes short of the 60-vote threshold.
The measure's defeat today was virtually assured when a former supporter, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), announced on the Senate floor that he had changed his mind because of opposition from top Pentagon brass. Warner instead supported a nonbinding alternative, a "sense of the Senate" resolution that declared a goal of giving troops as much time at home as they spend at war.
The resolution, sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), also failed to receive the 60 votes needed under a Senate agreement. The vote on it was 55 to 45.
Republican lawmakers said that even if the Webb amendment had been approved today, it almost certainly would have prompted President Bush to veto the $648 billion defense programs bill for fiscal 2008. The bill authorizes nearly $130 billion in additional emergency funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, calls for across-the-board pay hikes for all service members, increases troop levels for all military branches and raises payments for military personnel who die in combat zones from $12,000 to $100,000.
In debate on the Senate floor before the vote, Webb, a Vietnam veteran and former secretary of the Navy, said the alternative sense of the Senate resolution was inadequate. "This is a situation that calls for the will of the Congress," he said.
"This amendment would provide a safety net to our men and women in uniform by providing a minimum and more predictable time for them to rest and retrain," Webb said. "Our troops are spending more time in Iraq than they're spending at home," when traditional Pentagon guidelines say they should be given home stays twice as long as their deployments, he said.
He said his amendment would have required that no member or unit of the National Guard or Reserves could be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan within three years of their last deployment.
In response to complaints from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Webb said he had modified his amendment to allow a 120-day delay in enacting it and to exempt Special Operations units. He said it also granted the president authority to waive the amendment's limitations in the event of an operational emergency. His provision was endorsed by the 360,000-member Military Officers Association of America, the nation's largest organization of active and retired officers and their families.
Hagel charged that the administration's answer to its mistakes in Iraq has been to "just keep grinding down the people out there who've been fighting and dying." Service members who have bearing the burden of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ought to spend at least as much time at home as they do in the war zones, he said. "Is that outrageous?"
But McCain, a leading opponent of the Webb amendment, said it "would do more harm than good" and would force the military to withdraw troops from Iraq more rapidly than currently planned.
"This goes to the heart of the surge that is showing success in Anbar province, in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq," he said in debate on the Senate floor. "The effect of this amendment would be to emasculate this surge."
McCain called the measure a "backdoor" attempt to change the course of the war and argued that it was unconstitutional because it encroached on presidential powers.
Calling U.S. forces "overstressed . . . but not defeated," he argued that the amendment "could easily bring about their defeat" and lead to "chaos and genocide" in the region.
Six Republicans and one independent joined all the Senate's Democrats in voting for the Webb amendment. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who supports the administration's Iraq war policy, voted against it.