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Senate debates troop withdrawal measure

WASHINGTON (AP) — Breaking a parliamentary roadblock, the Senate on Wednesday began its first formal debate on the Iraq war since Democrats took control of Congress, taking up a measure calling for President Bush to withdraw combat troops by the end of next March. The White House swiftly issued a veto threat.

The 89-9 vote paved the way for consideration of the Democratic legislation, which would start troop withdrawals within four months and calls for – but does not require – the complete removal of combat troops by the end of March 2008. The vote came after many Republicans abandoned the tactic they had used earlier this year to twice prevent the Senate from considering legislation aimed at forcing an end to the war.

Despite the vote, most Republicans opposed the Democratic bill and it was expected to eventually fall short of the 60 votes it will need to pass. Even so, the debate would give Democrats a chance to put Republicans on record as opposing a timetable on the war at a time when most American voters oppose the conflict.

“This is the message the American people delivered to Congress on Nov. 7, 2006, and this is the message we must send to President Bush,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., referring to an election day in which Democrats captured both chambers.

The Senate breakthrough came after Republicans abandoned demands for assurances that a debate on the war include consideration of various GOP proposals, including a resolution vowing to protect funding for troops. Fearful such a measure would undercut the anti-war message Democrats wanted, Senate Democrats had refused.

But confident the latest Democratic proposal would fail, Republicans agreed to let debate begin. Republicans have argued that Congress should give the troop increase Bush ordered in January time to work. Bush says the increase – 21,500 combat troops plus thousands of additional support troops – is needed to help stabilize Iraq, where U.S. forces are now commanded by Gen. David Petraeus.

“It is a clear statement of retreat from the support that the Senate only recently gave to Gen. Petraeus,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., contrasting the Democratic measures with the chamber’s recent approval of Petraeus’ nomination as commanding general of the Iraq war.

The resolution language states that “whereas United States troops should not be policing a civil war, and the current conflict in Iraq requires principally a political solution …” the president “shall commence the phased redeployment of United States forces” no later than March 31, 2008.

The White House said the resolution “infringes upon the constitutional authority of the president as commander in chief by imposing an artificial timeline to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, regardless of the conditions on the ground or the consequences of defeat,” according an administration statement.

Forty Republicans, 47 Democrats and two independents voted to begin debate, while nine Republicans opposed. Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and the ailing Tim Johnson, D-S.D., did not vote.

Even before that vote, senators argued the merits of the war. Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, delivered an angry rebuke of what he said was Bush’s blatant incompetence.

“You’re leading us off a cliff,” Biden, D-Del., said of the president.

Sen. John McCain, an ardent supporter of Bush’s new Iraq strategy, said if Democrats oppose the war as much as they claim, they should vote to cut off funds for the war. Democrats have been reluctant to take such a politically unpopular step.

“When we authorize this war, we accepted the responsibility to make sure (troops) could prevail,” said McCain, R-Ariz.

The Senate measure is weaker than legislation being considered by House Democrats that would demand troops leave before September 2008. However, several Senate Democrats have been reluctant to impose a strict deadline on the president.

In the House, Democratic leaders continued to try to rally members behind spending legislation aimed at ending the war. The House passed a nonbinding resolution in February stating opposition to Bush’s decision to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq.

The $124 billion measure would includes $95.5 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The money for the Defense Department is $4 billion more than the president requested – extra money intended to enhance operations in Afghanistan and pay for added training and equipment and improved medical care for U.S. troops.

Meeting early Wednesday with reporters, Gen. James Conway, the Marines commandant, said “it would be very disruptive” to commanders and troops in Iraq if there was a sudden move to stop the troop buildup now and begin a withdrawal. Conway did not mention Congress.

It is still not clear if Bush’s troop increase will be a short-term boost or a longer-term requirement, Conway said. He said that decision needs to come from Petraeus, who is making battle plans based on promised troop levels.

“I think he would say … don’t jerk the rug out from under me before I’ve had a chance to do what I was sent here to do,” said Conway.


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