WASHINGTON — In its first direct challenge to President Bush on the war in Iraq, the Senate on Tuesday called on the administration to turn over to Iraqis more control of their country to hasten the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The resolution passed with broad bipartisan support, 79 to 19. Its approval comes as concern over the war's course is rising even among Republican lawmakers, and as President Bush's approval ratings have sunk to the lowest of his presidency.
Although the Republican-sponsored measure stopped short of urging a firm date to begin bringing troops home -- and still requires acceptance by the House -- its approval signaled a more active role by Congress in pushing for an end to U.S. involvement in Iraq.
The resolution calls for 2006 to be "a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty," which would create conditions for "the phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq."
It also would require the administration to begin reporting to Congress every three months on progress toward meeting that goal.
The provision is an amendment to the annual defense spending bill, which this year has spurred the Senate's first significant debate of the administration's conduct of the war since Congress voted more than three years ago to authorize the invasion.
"We want accountability from this president," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat. "It's not good enough for the president to make speeches about staying the course when the course has led to so many lives being lost, so many dollars being spent."
The Senate version of the defense legislation -- which is traditionally a "must pass" bill -- includes two other provisions aimed at changing administration practices related to the war.
One is an amendment approved earlier this month that bans federal agencies from engaging in "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment," including torture. Another, passed Tuesday, would grant foreign detainees held by the U.S. at its naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, limited rights to appeal their incarceration or convictions to a federal court.
The House version of the bill does not contain any of these provisions, so they might not remain in the final legislation.
Backing the resolution on Iraq were 41 Republicans, 37 Democrats and the Senate's lone independent. Opposing it were 13 Republicans and six Democrats.
California's senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, voted for it.
Bush, traveling in Japan, called the vote "a positive step by the United States Senate." Speaking at a joint news conference in Kyoto with Japan's prime minister, Bush said: "I view this amendment as consistent with our strategy."
Despite the resolution's broad support, Republicans and Democrats described its intent differently.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee and the measure's cosponsor with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), called it a "strong bipartisan message to the world" that it was time for Iraqis to take charge of their own country.
"The coalition forces, most particularly the United States and Great Britain, have done their job," Warner said. "And now we expect in return that [Iraqis] take charge of their nation and run it and form a democracy and prevent any vestige of a civil war from taking place."
Democrats said the resolution demonstrated increasing discontent with the administration's conduct of the war.
"Democrats and Republicans acknowledged that staying the course is not the way to go," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. "Therefore, this is a vote of no confidence on the Bush administration policy in Iraq."
Despite polls that show plummeting public support for the war, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the U.S. public understood the stakes.
"While the American people understandably want to know when our forces can leave Iraq, I believe they do not want them to leave until our mission is accomplished and the Iraqis are able to sustain their fledgling democracy," Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon. "One cannot set arbitrary deadlines. Timing of the handover of responsibility to Iraqis depends on conditions on the ground."
The amendment passed after the Senate rejected, 58 to 40, a Democratic-sponsored amendment to require Bush to prepare an estimated timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq -- a proposal strongly opposed by the administration. The vote on this amendment largely followed party lines.
In October 2002, the Senate voted 77 to 23 to give Bush the authority to invade Iraq. The House approved that measure on a 296-133 vote.
A CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll released Tuesday found that 60% of respondents disapproved of Bush's performance as president, while 37% said they approved -- the president's poorest showing in the survey since he was elected. The poll has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.