Friday, June 23, 2006

Republican Led Senate rejects Iraq withdrawal plans

Senate rejects Iraq withdrawal plans
By Vicki Allen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Republican-led Senate on Thursday rejected Democratic plans to start a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq as senators cast votes expected to resonate in November elections to determine control of Congress.

Republicans, embracing President George W. Bush's policies in the war that has caused his approval ratings to plummet, defeated two Democratic amendments to start the withdrawal of U.S. forces, now numbering about 127,000.

The votes capped two weeks of bitter debate in Congress over the conflict that has caused 2,511 U.S. military deaths, as Republicans accused Democrats of a "cut and run" strategy and Democrats retorted that Republicans were blindly following Bush's open-ended commitment.

A nonbinding resolution broadly backed by Senate Democrats that urged Bush to start withdrawing troops this year and left it up to him to set the schedule to implement the pullout failed 60-39. Six Democrats and one Republican crossed party lines on the vote.

Another amendment to put into law a plan to start withdrawing combat forces immediately and complete the process by next July failed 86-13.

Those 13 Democrats who voted for the measure pushed by Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Russell Feingold of Wisconsin then voted for the nonbinding resolution. It was cast as the Democratic consensus position that called for a plan to start withdrawing troops, but without a deadline that many senators feared would leave Iraq in a full-scale civil war.

After the Iraq votes were done, the Senate unanimously passed the underlying bill authorizing $517.7 billion in defense programs for next fiscal year starting in October, including $50 billion for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

At a Pentagon briefing, Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, spoke out against a deadline for troop withdrawal, saying it would limit his flexibility and "give the enemy a fixed timetable." Casey also said it would "send a terrible signal to a new government of national unity in Iraq that's trying to stand up and get its legs underneath it."

The Republican-led House of Representatives last week passed a resolution that wrapped the Iraq conflict into the war on terrorism and rejected a deadline for troop withdrawal after two days of debate that sometimes turned harshly personal.

In the Senate, Republicans and Democrats accused each other of exploiting the war for political gain.

After the votes, Democrats dismissed the defections in their ranks and claimed a political win, saying they were largely united behind a position supported by most Americans who want a policy to end the war.

"Eighty percent of us voted that way. It is a strong consensus statement by Democrats," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, a key sponsor of the withdrawal without a deadline measure.

Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said that although "Democrats proposed multiple and confusing strategies for withdrawal, it's clear that the Senate has rejected their plans for surrender and cut and run."

In debate geared toward November, Republicans depicted Iraq as central to the war on terrorism and branded Democrats as divided and weak on the issue.

"Withdrawal is not an option, surrender is not a solution," Frist said. "This senator does not want to be complicit in that decision that could reverse the success we have achieved since 9-11 in keeping terrorism off our shores."