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WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats defiantly charged ahead Thursday with legislation ordering troops home from Iraq, still lacking the votes to win but armed with the mantra that Republicans, along with President Bush, now own the war.
"They want this war more than they want to protect our soldiers," Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters. "When I say they want the war, they want to protect their president more than they want to protect our troops."
Reid spoke minutes after Republicans successfully pushed through, by a 72-25 vote, a resolution condemning an advertisement by the liberal activist group MoveOn.org. Displayed in The New York Times, the ad taunted Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, as "General Betray Us."
Reid's tough rhetoric reflected frustration by Democrats that more Republicans haven't broken with Bush on the war. Several Republican senators had grown increasingly anxious throughout the summer about the violence in Iraq and lack of political progress in Baghdad.
But despite a small group of challengers to the war, the GOP largely has stood behind Bush. On Wednesday, Republicans blocked legislation by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., that would have guaranteed troops more time at home. On Thursday, the Senate voted 28-70 to block legislation sponsored by Reid and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., that would have cut off funding for combat in June 2008.
"No matter where my colleagues came down in 2003 about the centrality of Iraq to the war on terror, there can simply be no debate that our efforts in Iraq today are critical to the wider struggle against violent Islamic extremism," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Gordon Smith, one of the few Republican senators who supports legislation ordering troop withdrawals, said he thought Petraeus' testimony last week and the MoveOn.org ad were the two biggest factors in keeping Republicans from breaking ranks with the president: Petraeus' testimony because it was persuasive and the ad because it attacked a popular uniformed officer.
"It was stupid on their part and disgraceful," said Smith, R-Ore.
GOP support also seemed to solidify after an aggressive outreach campaign by the Bush administration that continued this week.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates met on Thursday with nearly two dozen House Republicans, mostly moderates, to discuss Iraq. In a cramped conference room used by House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Gates spent an hour fielding questions from the 23 lawmakers ranging from the chances of a political reconciliation in Baghdad to how to convince voters the war is worthwhile.
"I don't think anybody can be comfortable with the war," said Rep. J. Randy Forbes, a Republican from southeastern Virginia, who attended the meeting. But, he later added, "when we weigh the options that we have, I think the option Petraeus put forward is a sound one."
Gates also has reached out to Democrats, meeting privately with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., this week at the Pentagon and planning to sit down next week with House Democratic rank and file.
The defeat of Feingold and Reid's legislation, proposed as part of a broader Pentagon policy bill, was not a surprise. A similar measure failed in May by a 29-67 vote, with opposing Democrats saying they feared that yanking funding could hurt the troops.
Voting for the Reid-Feingold legislation on Thursday were Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Barack Obama of Illinois and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. A fourth candidate, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., did not vote.
Twenty Democrats joined 49 Republicans and Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, in voting to block the bill.
Reid planned to try again Friday with another anti-war proposal by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. Levin's bill would order combat troops home in nine months. But that too was expected to fail, with Republicans saying they still opposed setting a firm deadline on the war.
Democrats had considered trying to push milder legislation, if doing so would mean attracting the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. But calculating they wouldn't have the votes either way, Reid announced this week he planned to offer only legislation that set a deadline to end the war.
In a White House news conference Thursday, Bush said the MoveOn.org ad was "disgusting" and he criticized Democrats for not immediately condemning it.
"And that leads me to come to this conclusion: that most Democrats are afraid of irritating a left-wing group like MoveOn.org, or more afraid of irritating them, then they are of irritating the United States military," Bush said.
Eli Pariser, executive director of the liberal group, responded: "What's disgusting is that the president has more interest in political attacks than developing an exit strategy to get our troops out of Iraq and end this awful war."
The resolution sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas condemning the ad drew opposition from Clinton and Dodd.
Obama did not vote on that measure. But minutes earlier, he did support an alternative by Sen. Barbara Boxer that condemned the ad as well as previous attack ads that questioned the patriotism of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and former Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., both Vietnam veterans.
"We're going to be pretty busy if we turn into the ad police," said Boxer, D-Calif.