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2 Democratic Calls for Pullout From Iraq Fail in Senate Votes

The party's leaders welcome support for one doomed resolution as a show of unity.
Maura Reynolds
LA Times

The Republican-controlled Senate rejected two Democratic measures Thursday calling for withdrawing 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.

Most of the chamber's Democrats backed 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 complete withdrawal.

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% 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 lost, 60-39, but Levin and his co-sponsor, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), noted that all but six of the Senate's Democrats voted for it, as did one Republican.

"I think the message that we are sending here is that we want us to succeed in Iraq, but … the time of a blank check must come to an end,'' said Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.).

The second withdrawal measure, sponsored by Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), would have required the administration to immediately begin withdrawal and complete it by July 2007. It was soundly 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. (D-Del.), who was among those voting against the Kerry plan but for the Levin-Reed measure. "We may disagree in degree, but we got a plan. The only thing I noticed today, 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 the Levin amendment.

Republicans, as expected, stoutly rebuffed the characterizations of Bush's Iraq policy as a failure and attacked the Democratic measures as a call for retreat.

After the votes, 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 they want us to do, which is to leave."

The Republicans welcomed the Senate debate — GOP strategists believe discussions of national security and the threat of terrorism work to their party's benefit.

Majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) pressed that case before Thursday's votes, saying 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."

On June 16, the growing split between Republicans and Democrats on the Iraq war was underscored by a House vote on a resolution that opposed setting an "arbitrary date" for U.S. troop withdrawal. The nonbinding measure passed in the GOP-controlled chamber, but roughly 75% of House Democrats voted against it.

Democratic lawmakers have been under increasing pressure from the party's liberal base to more aggressively criticize Bush over Iraq.

In a sign of the attitudes among this constituency, Democratic senators earned only measured praise Thursday from Tom Andrews, national director of Win Without War, a coalition of liberal groups opposed to the war.

Andrews lauded those who voted for the Kerry measure. He said war opponents would likely view the strong Democratic support for the Levin-Reed proposal as "a half-step in the right direction, but it's only a half-step."

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 television news reports — later corrected — that the Pentagon had announced a small troop reduction in Iraq as proof that their withdrawal proposals 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," Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid of Nevada said on the chamber floor. "Is Gen. Casey cutting and running? Is Gen. Casey admitting defeat?"

However, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said later Thursday that Casey had not yet made any recommendation on reducing the U.S. military presence in Iraq. There are an estimated 127,000 U.S. troops in the country.

Casey, joining Rumsfeld at a news conference, said he remained confident that he would be able to cut forces later in the year. But he said he opposed any timetable for withdrawing, such as the one set by Kerry's proposal.

"I feel it would limit my flexibility," Casey said. "I think 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."

With polls showing a majority of the public is dissatisfied with the White House's handling of the war, Democrats are hoping this discontent will translate into gains in the November elections that will give them a majority in one or both houses of Congress.

"It's time to change course from the slogans, the attacks, and the continual misleading," Reid said. "Demanding a change of course is not irresponsible. It's not unpatriotic. It's the right thing to do."

Democratic leaders, who in supporting the Levin-Reed amendment wanted to demonstrate as much party unity as possible, had lobbied Kerry to drop his measure. But the former presidential candidate — widely believed to be eyeing a second run for his party's nomination — resisted.

Criticized by party activists during the last campaign for being indecisive about the war, Kerry has now staked out a position as one of its most vocal opponents.

"Young men and women in the United States armed forces have been wounded and killed because of bad policy decisions, and it's not enough just to come to the floor of the U.S. Senate and insist we have to stay the course because otherwise what our troops are doing would be lost or be in vain," Kerry said before Thursday's votes. "What would be lost and be in vain is not to look and think about what's really happening over there and to adjust appropriately."

Those supporting his amendment included Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). California's other Democratic senator, Dianne Feinstein, backed the Levin-Reed amendment while voting against the Kerry amendment.

The six Democrats who voted against both amendments were Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bill Nelson of Florida, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Dayton of Minnesota.

Dayton, who decided not to seek reelection this year, said that he did not approve of the Bush administration's handling of the war, but that he did not think Congress should dictate specific policies during an unpredictable period.

The sole Republican supporting the Levin-Reed amendment was Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), who represents a heavily Democratic state and is up for reelection this year.