Senate blocks bill on Iraq combat tours
By ANNE FLAHERTY, Associated Press Writer
Democrats' efforts to challenge President Bush's Iraq policies were dealt a demoralizing blow Wednesday in the Senate after they failed to scrape together enough support to guarantee troops more time at home.
The 56-44 vote — four short of reaching the 60 needed to advance — all but assured that Democrats would be unable to muster the support needed to pass tough anti-war legislation by year's end. The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., was seen as the Democrats' best shot because of its pro-military premise.
"The idea of winning the war in Iraq is beginning to get a second look," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who led opposition to the bill alongside Sen. John McCain.
Webb's legislation would have required that troops spend as much time at home training with their units as they spend deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Members of the National Guard or Reserve would be guaranteed three years at home before being sent back.
Most Army soldiers now spend about 15 months in combat with 12 months home.
"In blocking this bipartisan bill, Republicans have once again demonstrated that they are more committed to protecting the president than protecting our troops," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Wednesday's vote was the second time in as many months that Webb's bill was sidetracked. In July, a similar measure also fell four votes short of advancing.
Democrats said they were hopeful additional Republicans, wary of the politically unpopular war, would agree this time around to break party ranks. It had already attracted three dozen co-sponsors including Republicans Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Gordon Smith of Oregon.
But momentum behind the bill stalled Wednesday after Sen. John Warner, R-Va., announced he decided the consequences would be disastrous. Warner, a former longtime chairman of the Armed Services Committee, had voted in favor of the measure in July but said he changed his mind after talking to senior military officials.
Webb later told reporters there was no doubt Warner's opposition threw cold water on the bill.
Hagel, R-Neb., said the White House also "has been very effective at making this a loyalty test for the Republican Party."
Of the 56 senators voting to advance the measure were 49 Democrats, six Republicans and Vermont Independent Bernard Sanders. Voting against it were 43 Republicans and Connecticut Independent Joseph Lieberman.
The vote "means Congress will not intervene in the foreseeable future" in the war's execution, Lieberman told reporters.
In coming days, the Senate plans to vote on legislation by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., that would order combat troops home in nine months. Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said his bill would allow some troops to remain behind to conduct such missions as counterterrorism and training the Iraqis; he estimated the legislation, if enacted, would cut troop levels in Iraq by more than half.
The Senate also planned to vote on legislation by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Reid, D-Nev., that would cut off funding for combat next year.
The firm deadlines reflect a shift in strategy for Democrats, who had been pursuing a bipartisan compromise on war legislation. But after last week's testimony by Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, Democrats calculated not enough Republicans were willing to break party ranks and support more tempered legislation calling for combat to end next summer.
McCain, R-Ariz., the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee and a Vietnam veteran, said Webb's bill was a "backdoor method" by Democrats to force troop withdrawals.
"We have a new strategy. We have success on the ground," said McCain. Pulling out troops would spark "chaos and genocide in the region, and we will be back," he said.
McCain offered an alternative resolution that would identify equal deployment and training times as a goal, but would not mandate deployment restrictions. The resolution was aimed at peeling off Republican support and lessening the prospects of passage for Webb's bill.
That resolution fell five votes shy of advancing, in a 55-45 vote.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he would have recommended that President Bush veto Webb's legislation if it is passed. The bill could force the military to extend tours, rely more heavily on reservists, or not replace units right away, even if they are needed, Gates said.
Webb and his supporters say the bill provides flexibility to avoid those pitfalls, including a presidential waiver if Bush can certify to Congress that ignoring the limitation was necessary to national security.
Webb amended the bill, after consultation with Gates, to exempt special operations forces and give the military 120 days to comply.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007