WASHINGTON – Setting the stage for a direct confrontation with President Bush over the war in Iraq, the Senate on Tuesday for the first time backed a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops.
The 50-48 vote turned aside a Republican bid to strip the timelines from a $122 billion emergency spending bill being sought by the White House to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With Republicans unexpectedly giving up plans to block the bill, the closely divided Senate appears poised to pass the bill and its controversial timelines as soon as today.
With the House having approved its own timelines last week, congressional Democrats are now close to presenting the president with a stark choice: veto the essential war funding or negotiate directly with war critics in a way he has never done.
“He doesn’t get everything he wants now, so I think it’s time that he started working with us,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a chief architect of the Democratic campaign to pressure the president to alter his war policy. “The president must change course.”
The Senate bill would require the president to begin pulling out combat troops within 120 days of the measure’s enactment and would set a “goal” of completing the withdrawal by March 31, 2008.
Bush has repeatedly rejected timelines, criticizing them for tying the hands of military commanders in the field. On Tuesday, the White House reiterated a veto threat that the president personally delivered last week after the House approved its version of the war funding bill, which would mandate a withdrawal of most U.S. troops no later than August 2008.
“The president is disappointed that the Senate continues down a path with a bill that he will veto and has no chance of becoming law,” deputy White House press secretary Dana Perino said in a statement.
In the three months since Democrats assumed the majority on Capitol Hill, the White House has been able to count on Republican lawmakers to back up those warnings with legislative action.
Senate Republicans, weathering accusations that they were preventing debate on the most important issue facing the country, twice last month successfully filibustered nonbinding resolutions criticizing the president’s plan to deploy additional troops to Iraq.
And less than two weeks ago, the Senate rejected a resolution that, like the war funding bill, calls for a troop pullout by March 31, 2008. Then, two Democrats and one independent voted with the Republicans.
But this week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., indicated that Senate Republicans would not use their power to filibuster the spending bill, even though Democrats stood little chance of mustering the 60 votes needed to overcome such a GOP maneuver.
McConnell and other GOP lawmakers said the decision reflected their desire to put a bill on the president’s desk quickly so he could veto it and Congress would be forced to pass a spending measure without the limits.
“We are committed on the Republican side to funding our troops … and are not interested in allowing the political posturing to get in the way of the core support,” McConnell explained.
He and other GOP lawmakers continue to criticize the Democratic plan for timelines as a strategy for defeat that would hobble the administration’s plan to boost troop levels.
“Conditions have changed in Iraq,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., emphatically told his Senate colleagues, noting decreasing ethnic violence and increased cooperation from Iraqi authorities.
“The Baghdad security plan, the surge, is working far better than even the most optimistic supporter had predicted,” McCain said. “Markets that have been subject to horrific car bombings have been turned into pedestrian malls.”
But the speeches did not sway enough Republicans to eliminate the timelines. Two GOP lawmakers – Oregon’s Gordon Smith and Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel – crossed the aisle and voted with the Democrats.
Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor and Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman, who caucuses with Democrats, voted with the GOP. Two senators did not vote: Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and Michael Enzi, R-Wyo.
By allowing the bill to pass, Senate Republicans have effectively left the White House to confront congressional Democrats alone.
That was a wise political decision, said longtime GOP consultant Frank Luntz. “At a certain point, Republicans have to let the president stand up… . This was George W. Bush’s policy. It should be George W. Bush’s decision,” Luntz said. “George Bush will not be up for re-election again. In 2008, the entire House and one third of the Senate will.”