Senate Agrees To Debate Bill On Iraq Pullout

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), left, meets constituents. His sixth attempt to start a debate on a troop-withdrawal bill finally succeeded, with opponents' help.
Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), left, meets constituents. His sixth attempt to start a debate on a troop-withdrawal bill finally succeeded, with opponents' help. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Senate voted overwhelmingly yesterday to begin debating a bill that would require the administration to start withdrawing forces from Iraq in 120 days and cut funding for battlefield deployments, a surprise move supported by Republicans who want to highlight the security achievements over the past year under President Bush's troop buildup strategy.

Republicans remain almost unanimously opposed to any required withdrawal timeline, but they supported opening the debate because they want to draw attention to the decreased violence and other military progress in Iraq since the United States sent an additional 30,000 U.S. troops there last year.

"There's been so much improvement in the situation in Iraq. Since [Democrats] are the ones who want to turn back to the subject, we'd like to spend the time talking about the dramatic improvements in Iraq," Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters moments before a preliminary vote on the withdrawal measure.

The Senate voted 70 to 24 in favor of beginning a debate on a motion to formally vote on the bill, with 43 Republicans joining 26 Democrats and one independent.

In five previous efforts during the past 20 months, Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) had not received even 30 votes to bring his bill to a final vote. Not a single Republican had previously supported any of Feingold's withdrawal bills, which have proposed the deepest cuts of any legislation requiring troop pullouts from Iraq.

The Republican move to back the debate on the Feingold proposal caught Democratic leaders off guard. Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who supports the Feingold measure, had hoped the Senate would begin considering a package addressing the mortgage crisis late yesterday. He had expected Republicans to remain opposed to debating the withdrawal plan as well as another bill requiring a new administration strategy on the fight against al-Qaeda.

The latest Feingold bill would require troop redeployments out of Iraq within 120 days of being signed into law, while allowing funds to be spent there only for specific purposes: continuing counterterrorist operations, protecting the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, training Iraqi forces and redeploying U.S. forces out of the country.

"Keeping our troops in Iraq will not solve Iraq's problems," Feingold said during the debate yesterday. "And it won't help us address the growing threat by al-Qaeda around the world."

There is little chance of the Feingold measure actually passing, however, with Republicans remaining steadfastly opposed to it and almost half of the Democratic caucus thinking it goes too far. Democrats and Republicans expect the bill to fail later this week, either in a parliamentary gridlock or in a straight vote.

GOP senators openly mocked the measure, the subject of the 35th Iraq-related vote since Democrats took over the chamber in January 2007. "We don't need to waste any more time on this," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.).

But Republicans welcomed the chance to emphasize the U.S. military's achievements since the troop increase last June. "I never dreamed it would matter this much," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a leading proponent of the strategy. He noted that monthly attacks against U.S. forces are down 60 percent since last June. "In other words, we're rolling back the attacks," he said.

But the debate showed early signs of sharp partisan attacks on both sides. One Republican, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Tex.), told reporters that supporting the Feingold withdrawal proposal would be "a bullet right in the hearts of our troops" in Iraq -- a statement Democrats pounced on as offensive to their legislative motives.

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