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Senate tilting on Iraq policy

Republicans show their strongest willingness yet to rein in Bush, while Democrats persist in seeking funding cutoff.

May 17, 2007|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Forty-four Republican senators backed a plan Wednesday to tie continued economic aid to Iraq to the performance of its government, the strongest demonstration yet of GOP willingness to impose limits on President Bush's management of the war.

And in an indication of growing Democratic resolve to force an end to the war, a majority of Democratic senators supported a second measure to cut off funding for most combat operations in Iraq by the end of March.

Both proposals failed to win the support needed to proceed to a debate and a vote.

The plan to link aid to benchmarks that the Iraqi government would have to meet -- sponsored by Republican Sens. John W. Warner of Virginia and Susan Collins of Maine -- drew the votes of 52 senators, short of the 60 needed to begin debate.

Only 29 voted to move forward with debate of the funding cutoff plan sponsored by Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Despite the failure of the measures -- amendments to an unrelated bill to fund water projects -- the votes illustrated Congress' dramatic response to public dismay with the war.

"It is clear that change is in the air," Assistant Senate Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said after the votes. "Our resolutions have not passed, but they will pass. I don't know how many more bodies will come home, how many more injured soldiers there will be. But a growing tension in this country over this war will lead us to the right conclusion."

The Feingold-Reid plan introduced last month would restrict funding at the end of March 2008 for all but a limited range of military operations, including protecting U.S. personnel, training Iraqi forces and conducting limited counter-terrorism operations.

Under the Warner plan, the president would have to certify in July that the Iraqi government is making progress on a series of goals, such as disarming militias and passing legislation to equitably distribute oil revenue. Without such a certification, economic aid to Iraq would be suspended.

But Warner, who has repeatedly deferred to presidential authority as the Iraq debate has intensified, included a provision that would allow the president to waive certification.

Although the measure includes this escape clause, the vote Wednesday marked the first time a majority of Republicans backed any condition on Bush's management of the 4-year-old war.

The president has insisted for years on a free hand to conduct U.S. policy in Iraq. And until recently, he rejected any consequences for failures by the Iraqi government to meet benchmarks.

Reid, however, derided the Warner proposal as "weak," comparing it to "a cup of tea that has been sitting on the table for a few weeks."

In contrast, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) cast it as a mark of Republican determination to hold the Iraqi government accountable. "The Iraqi government ... needs to understand they are running out of time to get their part of the job done," McConnell said. "It is those kind of messages we are sending."

While Republicans were taking pains to show their commitment to modifying U.S. policy in Iraq, Democratic leaders were pushing further than ever before to stop the war.

Months ago, a handful of liberal Democrats backed cutting off funding, the most potent tool Congress has to force a president's hand.

When Feingold and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) pushed a resolution last summer that would have required a withdrawal -- though not an end to funding -- by this July, 13 Democrats backed the measure. And in March, 96 senators voted for a nonbinding resolution opposing any funding cuts for troops in Iraq.

Among the supporters of Feingold's plan Wednesday were the Senate's top four Democrats: Reid, Durbin, New York's Charles E. Schumer -- who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee -- and Washington's Patty Murray, the conference secretary for the Democratic Caucus.

Also backing the plan were four Democratic senators running for president: Delaware's Joseph R. Biden Jr., New York's Hillary Rodham Clinton, Connecticut's Christopher J. Dodd and Illinois' Barack Obama.

California's two senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, also supported it.

Wednesday's votes came after a House vote May 10 in which 171 lawmakers, including two Republicans, voted to require the president to begin withdrawing troops in three months and complete the withdrawal in nine months.

"Strong disapproval of the war is spreading from the people to Congress," said John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World and a strong critic of the war. "By September or October, there may be a veto-proof majority -- including many Republicans -- ready to call it quits in Iraq."

With Wednesday's symbolic votes behind them, senators will turn to an emergency war spending bill that has been stalled for more than three months by a political standoff between the president and his Democratic congressional foes.

Bush vetoed an earlier version of the spending bill because it contained a timeline for withdrawing U.S. forces, including a nonbinding goal of completing the withdrawal by April 2008.

Congressional Democrats are now working to put together a new version that could be voted on by the House and Senate next week.

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noam.levey@latimes.com

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