Republicans scuttle Democrats' plan to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq

Thursday, July 19, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans torpedoed legislation Wednesday to force the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq, bowing to President Bush's adamant refusal to consider any change in war strategy before September.

The 52-47 vote fell short of the 60 needed to advance the legislation and marked the final act in an all-night session that Democrats engineered to dramatize their opposition to the war.

"Time and the American people are ... on our side," said a defiant Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who has made ending the war the Democrats' top goal since they took control of the Senate in January. "We will do everything in our power to change course in Iraq," he said moments after the vote.

Equally unyielding on the other side, Arizona Sen. John McCain said, "As long as there is a prospect for not losing this war, then we must not choose to lose it."

"I do not know how I could choose any other course," said McCain, a Republican presidential contender.

The Senate's action left no doubt that Bush's decision last winter to deploy additional troops to Iraq will have at least two more months to produce results. Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. general in Iraq and architect of the president's latest strategy, is to deliver a report to Congress on Sept. 15.

Wednesday's vote unfolded as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the Capitol for private meetings with lawmakers and the nation's top military officer cautioned that the United States faces decades of fighting in the larger global war on terror.

"We can vote to fight it in one place or another," said Gen. Peter Pace, whose term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is nearing an end.

"But the bottom line is that as long as our enemy is sworn to destroy our way of life, we are going to be in a war," said Pace, addressing troops in Afghanistan.

Inside the Capitol, senators voted from their seats as they settled the fate of the withdrawal measure, a procedure usually reserved only for the most solemn of occasions.

But the outcome was no different from numerous other contested votes this year on the war, yet another demonstration that Democrats lack the votes to force a change in course without the acquiescence of Senate Republicans -- if not the White House.

Expressions of Republican discontent on Iraq have grown in recent weeks, a trend reinforced by an administration report that showed little progress by Iraqis toward political goals. Even so, only four of the Senate's 49 Republicans, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Gordon Smith of Oregon and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, chose to side with Democrats on their demand for a final vote.

One of them, Collins, said she opposed the legislation itself, which she said offered an "abrupt withdrawal date" that could have disastrous consequences.

The proposal, advanced by Democrats Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, would have required Bush to begin pulling out the 158,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq within 120 days. The withdrawal would be completed by April 30, 2008, with the exception of a residual force to fight terrorists, train Iraqis and protect U.S. personnel and possessions.

Unlike a withdrawal bill that cleared the House last week, the measure does not contemplate assigning Iraqi border security to U.S. troops.

Democrats have provided no estimates on how many thousands, or even tens of thousands, of troops would be required to fulfill those missions.

Republicans raised numerous questions about the impact of the withdrawal measure, but their common criticism was that Bush's so-called troop surge deserved more time.

"We need to give Gen. Petraeus until September to do his work. That's a commitment we made and signed into law," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, referring to legislation that cleared Congress in May. "We need to stand by that commitment."

McConnell jabbed at the all-night session that Democrats had choreographed, referring to "all the gags and giggles and gimmicks, the cold pizza and the empty cots."

Democrats seemed content, having labored overtime to reassure and other anti-war constituents of their commitment, and having placed Republicans in a position of having to choose between public sentiment on the war and a president of their own party.

Republicans grumbled at that, and twice in recent days, Reid has abruptly cut off GOP senators attempting to explain their actions.

Collins, who sponsors a less sweeping proposal, expressed dismay that following the vote, the majority leader decided to cut off debate on Iraq.

"We needed to have a chance to debate" several bipartisan measures to change the U.S. mission in Iraq, she said.

But Democratic strategists said that wasn't part of their agenda, and that Reid wanted to deny Republicans the chance to demonstrate independence from Bush unless they were willing to support the withdrawal measure.

The all-night session had its moments -- Democrats decamping at dusk to attend a candlelight rally near the Capitol, for example, a senator or two catching a middle-of-the-night snooze in a room equipped with cots just off the Senate floor, meaningless procedural votes that obliged bleary-eyed lawmakers to appear at midnight and again at 5 a.m.

Not even presidential contenders were immune from indignity.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York wound up with a dead-of-night turn to speak, not long after 4 a.m. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, her chief campaign rival, thought he had landed a slot in the 6 a.m. hour, rich in possibility for morning television coverage. That plan evaporated in a Senate scheduling crunch, though, and his remarks were limited to mere seconds, hours later.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., delivered his entire speech after the vote.

Among the presidential hopefuls, only McCain referred to their common goal, the White House. Casting himself as willing to defy public opinion on the war, he said, "The public's judgment of me I will know soon enough. I accept it, as I must."

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