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In a bold wartime challenge to President Bush, the Democratic-controlled Senate voted Thursday to begin withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by Oct. 1 with a goal of a complete pullout six months later. The White House dismissed the legislation as "dead before arrival."
The 51-46 vote was largely along party lines, and like House passage a day earlier it underscored that the war’s congressional opponents are far short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a Bush veto.
Democrats marked Thursday’s final passage with a news conference during which they repeatedly urged Bush to reconsider his veto threat. "This bill for the first time gives the president of the United States an exit strategy" from Iraq, said Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin.
The legislation is "in keeping with what the American people want," added Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
The White House was unmoved. "The president’s determined to win in Iraq. I think the bill that they sent us today is mission defeated," said deputy press secretary Dana Perino. "This bill is dead before arrival."
Given that standoff, Republicans and Democrats alike already were maneuvering for position on a follow-up bill.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the just-passed legislation as "political posturing" by Democrats that deserves the veto it will receive. "The solution is simple: Take out the surrender date, take out the pork and get the funds to our troops," he said.
The bill would provide $124.2 billion, more than $90 billion of which would go for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Democrats added billions more for domestic programs, and while most of the debate focused on the troop withdrawal issue, some of the extra spending also has drawn Bush’s criticism.
The day’s developments amounted to a landmark of sorts.
The vote occurred nearly four years after Bush stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier before a banner that read "Mission Accomplished" — and 113 days after Democrats took power in Congress and vowed to change course in a war that has cost the lives of more than 3,300 U.S. troops.
During Vietnam, a longer and far deadlier war for U.S. forces, Congress went years before it was able to agree on legislation significantly challenging presidential war policy.
In the current case, any veto override attempt would occur in the House, and even Democrats concede they lack the votes to prevail.
With House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at his side, Reid said Democrats hoped to have a follow-up war-funding bill ready for the president’s signature by June 1. Despite administration claims to the contrary, he said that was soon enough to prevent serious disruption in military operations.
Several Democratic officials have said they expect the next measure will jettison the withdrawal timetable, a concession to Bush. At the same time, they say they hope to include standards for the Iraqi government to meet on issues such as expanding democratic participation and allocating oil resources.
Bush and congressional Republicans, eager to signal the public that they do not support an open-ended commitment to Iraq, have both embraced these so-called benchmarks. Unlike Democrats, they generally oppose using benchmarks to require specific actions, such as troop withdrawals.
Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, said at a news conference that the purpose of benchmarks should be to "see how the Iraqi government is doing," rather than to establish deadlines for a troop withdrawal.
Opinion on the issue covered a wide spectrum. "The only good measure that exists in Iraq now is body counts, and that’s not a very good measure," said Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, a moderate Democrat.
Congress acted as the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, said at a Pentagon news conference that the U.S. mission "may get harder before it gets easier."
Less than three months after Bush announced an increase in troop strength and a shift in tactics, Petraeus said improvements were evident in both Baghdad and the Anbar Province in western Iraq. At the same time, he said the accomplishments "have not come without sacrifice" and that greater American losses have resulted from increased car bombings and suicide attacks, plus the greater concentration of U.S. troops among the Iraqi population.
There were no surprises in the Senate vote, in which 48 Democrats and one independent joined Republicans Gordon Smith of Oregon and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska in supporting the bill. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who typically votes with the Democrats, sided with 45 Republicans in opposition.
In a clear warning to the White House, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, opposed the legislation but issued a statement saying her patience with the war was limited.
"If the president’s new strategy does not demonstrate significant results by August, then Congress should consider all options including a redefinition of our mission and a gradual but significant withdrawal of our troops next year," she said. Like Hagel and Smith, Collins is coming up on a 2008 re-election campaign.
Democrats have long argued that Republicans must choose between a politically unpopular war on the one hand and a president of their own party on the other.
The legislation requires a troop withdrawal to begin July 1 if Bush cannot certify that the Iraqi government is making progress in disarming militias, reducing sectarian violence and forging political agreements, otherwise by Oct. 1.
While the beginning of a withdrawal is mandated, the balance of the pullback is merely advisory, to take place by April 1, 2008.
Troops could remain after that date to conduct counterterrorism missions, protect U.S. facilities and personnel and train Iraqi security forces.
The war aside, Democrats included more than $10 billion in the legislation that Bush did not ask for. Included was $3.5 billion for the victims of Hurricane Katrina; $2.3 billion for homeland security and smaller amounts for rural schools, firefighting, children’s health care and other programs.