Senate rejects Iraq withdrawal

Democrats united on pullout, split over setting date to finish

June 23, 2006|By MAURA REYNOLDS

WASHINGTON -- The Republican-controlled Senate rejected two Democratic measures yesterday that called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq - votes that were less an attempt to legislate than a test of Democratic unity on an issue that could prove decisive in November's congressional elections and the 2008 presidential race.

An overwhelming majority of the chamber's Democrats voted in favor of a resolution that urged President Bush to start the troop redeployment by the end of this year but stopped short of setting a deadline for completing it.

Some Democratic leaders hailed the support for the proposal - designed to signal to Iraqis that they need to assume more control of their country - as an expression of party cohesion.

"When you get 80 percent of the Democrats agreeing on the specifics of a policy, folks, you've got a strong consensus of Democrats," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee and one of the resolution's sponsors. "And when that includes everybody that we know of who's thinking of running for president in the U.S. Senate, that is a very strong statement of consensus among Democrats."

The measure was defeated, 60-39, but Levin and his co-sponsor, Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, noted that all but six Senate Democrats voted for it, as did one Republican.

The second withdrawal measure, sponsored by Sens. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, would have required the administration to immediately begin withdrawal and complete it by July of next year. It was defeated, 86-13, with 31 Democrats joining 55 Republicans in voting against it.

"We may have our divisions, and we do disagree with setting a time certain" for final troop withdrawal, said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat who voted against the Kerry plan but for the Levin-Reed measure. "We may disagree in degree, but we got a plan. ... The Republicans are united in supporting a policy thus far that's been a failure."

All the senators who voted for Kerry's amendment - 12 Democrats and one independent - also voted for Levin's.

Republicans rebuffed the idea that Bush's Iraq policy has been a failure and attacked the Democratic measures as calls for retreat.

Vice President Dick Cheney said on CNN, "Absolutely the worst possible thing we could do at this point would be to validate and encourage the terrorists by doing exactly what [Democrats] want us to do, which is to leave."

Republicans welcomed the Senate debate. GOP strategists say discussions of national security and the threat of terrorism work to the party's political benefit.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, pressed that case before yesterday's votes, saying that the spirit of the Democratic proposals was "the spirit of defeatism and surrender. This is not the spirit that made America the great nation it is today."

Both measures were offered as amendments to a $571 billion defense bill that passed 96-0 later in the day. During the debate, Democrats seized on news reports - later corrected - that the Pentagon had announced a small troop reduction as proof that withdrawal should not be portrayed as "cutting and running."

"On today's morning news, it is reported that Gen. [George W.] Casey, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, has stated thousands of troops may be redeployed by year's end," Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said on the Senate floor. "Is General Casey cutting and running? Is General Casey admitting defeat?"

However, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said later yesterday that he was not prepared to decide on a further troop reduction in Iraq. For weeks, Pentagon officials had said Casey was likely to make recommendations on troop levels by Wednesday. But the delays in completing Iraq's new government forced commanders to push back the date.

Casey, who visited Washington this week, will leave without making his recommendations. About 127,000 U.S. troops are now in Iraq.

Casey, joining Rumsfeld at a news conference yesterday, said he remains confident that he will be able to cut forces later in the year. But he said he opposes any timetable.

"It would limit my flexibility," Casey said. "It would give the enemy a fixed timetable, and I think it would send a terrible signal to the new government of national unity in Iraq that's trying to stand up and get its legs underneath it."

Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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