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Bitter Iraq debate in Senate

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June 21, 2006


In a debate likely to shape November’s elections, the Senate fought bitterly on Wednesday over measures pushed by Democrats to wind down U.S. involvement in Iraq that Republicans derided as “cut-and-run” strategies.

Republicans sought to turn the tables on Democrats over the war, depicting them as weak on terrorism and casting Iraq as the front in a terror war that would otherwise move to the United States.

Democrats, banking on the war’s unpopularity in their bid to regain control of Congress in the midterm elections, said their amendments showed their united opposition to President George W. Bush’s policies.

But they offered two plans — one to start withdrawing U.S. troops this year but without a deadline to finish withdrawal, and another to pull out combat forces by July 2007.

Most Democrats, wary of setting a pullout deadline for fear that could lead to a full-scale Iraqi civil war, backed the nonbinding resolution crafted by Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island calling for the start of the phased withdrawal but with no timetable.

But about a dozen were expected to support the amendment to put a deadline into law that is being pushed by Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, both eyeing presidential runs in 2008.

Some senators were expected to support both amendments in votes expected on Thursday, seeing the Levin-Reed amendment as a fallback position.

Republicans called them “cut-and-run” and “cut-and-jog” amendments that showed fissures in the Democratic Party.

“It’s been interesting to watch the Democrats debate among themselves,” said Senate Republican Whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He expressed confidence the Republican-controlled chamber would defeat both measures.

Reflecting the party’s split, Democratic whip Richard Durbin of Illinois said he would vote for the Kerry-Feingold measure, while Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada backed the Levin-Reed amendment, which he had hoped would be a vehicle for party unity.

Democrats lashed out at Republicans, saying they were trying to exploit for their political gain a war in which more than 2,500 U.S. soldiers have died.

‘PARTISAN SQUABBLE’

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat and another likely presidential contender, accused Republicans of “blindly following” Bush. She said they “may not have a war strategy, but they do have an election strategy” by branding as unpatriotic those opposed to an unconditional commitment of U.S. troops.

Reed said his amendment would “begin to transition the burden from American military shoulders” to Iraqis. “This isn’t cut and run. … It is an attempt to articulate a policy based on the reality of Iraq.”

But Kerry and Feingold said Reed’s plan was too weak to prod Iraqis to take over their own security. Feingold said his measure showed “the views of the majority of the American people, which we’ve come to in a very painful way.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, a Virginia Republican, decried the partisanship over the war. He also blasted the Democratic amendments.

“It is a timetable no matter how many times people protest it is not a timetable,” Warner said of the Reed-Levin amendment. He said it would “encourage terrorism, embolden al Qaeda” and threaten U.S. security.

Moderates from both parties facing tough elections this fall were warily assessing their positions.

“The problem is I have a primary election separate from a general election. Every vote is going to be under attack,” said Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a Republican in heavily Democratic Rhode Island who has angered his own party by bucking Bush on a number of issues.

Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat in Republican-dominated Nebraska, worried the Levin-Reed measure would be viewed as setting a pullout deadline. “I’m not for a date for withdrawal … but I also don’t think we ought to be there indefinitely.”

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat facing a stiff primary challenge largely because of his pro-war stance, said he would oppose the Democratic amendments.

© 2006 Reuters