Thursday, July 12, 2007

Senate Republicans stop more leave for troops

Senate Republicans stop more leave for troops
By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked a proposal to give American troops in Iraq more rest from battle, as Democrats renewed their attempts to change President George W. Bush's Iraq policy.

While the White House won this initial skirmish on a military policy bill, it lost the support of seven of Bush's fellow Republicans in the Senate's vote on requiring minimum rest times between troop deployments. Six of the seven Republicans who broke ranks are up for re-election next year.

Bush faces another challenge on Thursday, this time in the House of Representatives. Democratic leaders predicted they will pass a bill requiring the start of U.S. combat troop withdrawals within four months and completing it by April 1, 2008.

"My main concern is the readiness of our U.S. military," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat who is pushing the legislation and thinks the long Iraq war is "draining" the army.

In March, the House passed a similar plan, which was not accepted by the Senate.

House Democrats hope passage of this bill, coupled with public opposition to the war, will goad the Senate into action on a similar measure setting an April 30, 2008 deadline for withdrawing troops. But passage there will be difficult because of procedural rules that likely would require 60 of the Senate's 100 members to approve it.

Several Republicans have signed up to co-sponsor the Senate withdrawal proposal, including Sens. Gordon Smith of Oregon, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

Trying to calm dissent among a growing number of Republicans over the Iraq war, the White House dispatched national security adviser Stephen Hadley to Capitol Hill for the second straight day, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned lawmakers.

They urged senators to back Bush's determination to wait until September for an evaluation by Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, instead of embracing some lawmakers' attempts to impose change with a series of votes this month.

"Basically the White House position is we should wait to hear from General Petraeus before we take another step," said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee after a session with Hadley.

Seven Republicans joined 48 Democrats and one independent to vote for a plan by Virginia Sen. James Webb to ensure that troops, many of whom have endured multiple deployments to Iraq, get adequate time at home between tours of duty.

But that was still four votes short of the 60 needed given procedural hurdles erected by Republican leaders.


The Bush administration is expected to issue an interim report on Thursday on the situation in Iraq and how the government in Baghdad is performing.

"We will all hear the U.S. government's sober assessment of that tomorrow," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

The Senate did agree 97-0 on an amendment confronting Iran over its "proxy attacks" on U.S. soldiers. Sponsor Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, said Iran has been training and equipping gunmen who kill U.S. troops in Iraq.

"The Senate is blowing the whistle on Iran. We know what they are doing, we know it is resulting in the death of American soldiers in Iraq, and they better stop it," he said.

But at the insistence of Democrats, Lieberman added wording to say that this was not authorizing armed force against Iran.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan)