WASHINGTON – Reflecting heightened public anxiety over the Iraq war, the Senate on Tuesday issued its most direct challenge yet to President Bush’s handling of the conflict, as it pressed for concrete steps toward troop withdrawals and a requirement for the White House to provide more information on military operations.
By a vote of 79 to 19, the Senate approved a resolution designating 2006 as “a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty … thereby creating the conditions for the phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq.” It also would require the White House to submit to Congress an unclassified report every 90 days detailing U.S. policy and military operations.
The resolution was offered by Republican leaders after the Senate rejected a Democratic resolution, 58 to 40, that would have pressured the administration to outline a plan to draw down U.S. forces in Iraq. On that vote, five Democrats voted with the GOP majority while only one Republican – Lincoln Chafee, of Rhode Island – voted yes. Democrats have moved aggressively to challenge Bush over how the United States went to war and how the war can be brought to an end.
Despite the partisan nature of the final votes, the day’s debate reflected clear unease in both parties about the administration’s Iraq policy – and a new willingness by the Senate to insist that Bush provide more clarity of how he intends to exit Iraq.
The weaker GOP measure was added to a defense policy reauthorization bill, along with other provisions that would codify the treatment of military detainees and establish new legal rights for terrorism suspects. One of those provisions, sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would establish strict guidelines for interrogation of suspected terrorists. Another would dramatically alter U.S. policy for treating captured terrorist suspects by granting them a final recourse to the federal courts but stripping them of some key legal rights.
The Senate approved the overall legislation by 98 to 0. A final compromise must be reached with the House, but the bipartisan Senate action suggests a potentially pivotal shift, with Republicans and Democrats alike no longer content to follow Bush’s lead on the war.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called the war-related resolution “a vote of no confidence” on Bush’s Iraq policies. “Staying the course will not do,” Reid said.
However, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., insisted on the Senate floor that his colleagues were in no way trying to shift administration policy or rebuke the White House. He called such an assessment “absurd” and “ridiculous.”
“It’s not a change in policy,” he said. “It’s a continuation of the oversight we’ve been conducting for years in the United States Senate.”
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino hailed Tuesday’s votes as a “bipartisan rejection of the call for a (troop) withdrawal timetable” and said the administration “would be happy to comply with the Senate’s call for more reports.” But Perino signaled the administration’s intent to alter some of the other provisions approved Tuesday, including McCain’s guidelines on treating military prisoners.
Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., who wrote the Republican version, called it a “forward-looking” reflection of the high stakes in Iraq over the coming months. On Dec. 15, Iraqis are to vote on a new parliament, and the Bush administration hopes the election will herald a new era of stability in the country, he said.
Rank-and-file Republicans concede the political atmosphere is changing. Sen. Mike DeWine, Ohio, who faces a tough re-election bid in a state with marked misgivings about the war, said he is pleased to see the Senate engaging the White House on war policy, and predicted the trend would grow more pronounced. “This is the way it should be,” DeWine said. “We should be involved.”
The House has already approved its version of the annual defense policy bill, but without the contentious provisions added by the Senate on Tuesday. Acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., spoke favorably Tuesday about Warner’s resolution, suggesting that the requirement for quarterly reports to Congress could showcase what he called “the good news” from Iraq. But he would not endorse the provision, saying House members would have to discuss it further.
Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who will be the House’s chief negotiator, hinted at conflicts to come.
He suggested that the McCain measure, which would codify and restrict interrogation methods, may be redundant because a 1994 law declared that torture is illegal and in the case of a prisoner’s death can be a capital offense. He also voiced concern that civil lawsuits by detainees may be “empowering terrorists.” The Senate measure approved Tuesday would curtail such suits but grants suspected terrorists access to a federal appeals court.
As for the Senate’s new reporting requirement, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted that the Pentagon and State Department already send “literally dozens of Iraqi-related reports to Congress each year,” including monthly classified updates on the Iraqi security forces. Given the gravity of a war, Rumsfeld said, Congress has “every right to ask for reports.”
The White House has complained that McCain’s language dealing with prisoners is too broad and has threatened to veto any bill containing it.