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Democratic presidential contenders on Capitol Hill will cast critical votes on the Iraq war this week, when lawmakers decide on a $120 billion bill to keep military operations afloat through September. The House planned to vote Thursday with the Senate to follow suit by week's end.
The legislation does not set the deadline for U.S. troop withdrawals many Democrats wanted. Unable to achieve the two-thirds majority needed to override one presidential veto because of such a deadline â€” or the threat of another â€” Democratic leaders announced Tuesday they would proceed to provide money for the war anyway because they wanted to support the troops.
"I believe as long as we have troops in the front line, we're going to have to protect them," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del. "We're going to have to fund them."
Biden was alone among the potential Democratic candidates in immediately pledging his support for the bill.
Two front-runners, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, declined to say how they intended to vote on the measure.
Both have voted against binding timetables for troop withdrawals in the past, before public sentiment against the war hardened or they became presidential contenders. Last week, the two voted to advance legislation that would have cut off money for U.S. combat operations by March 31, 2008, cutoff.
Challengers Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio said they would oppose the measure because in their view it issued a blank check to President Bush on the Iraq war.
"Half-measures and equivocations are not going to change our course in Iraq," Dodd said in a statement. "If we are serious about ending the war, Congress must stand up to this president's failed policy now â€” with clarity and conviction."
The hefty spending bill has become a lightning rod for political attacks on Bush and his handling of the deeply unpopular war, which has killed more than 3,400 U.S. troops and cost more than $300 billion. But it also has exposed a sharp divide among Democrats on how far Congress should go to end the war.
Democratic candidates are vying for the anti-war vote, but at the same time do not want to appear as though they are turning their backs on the military.
The bill includes about $100 billion for military and diplomatic efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as $8 billion in domestic projects such as farm aid and hurricane relief and $9 billion in military-related spending such as improved health care for service members.
While the measure does not include a timetable on the war, it does threaten to withhold U.S. aid dollars for Iraq if Baghdad fails to make progress on political and security reforms. The president, however, could waive that restriction.
Biden said that while he would vote for the measure, he disagreed with the approach because it could hamper the Iraqi government's ability to take on more responsibility.
The legislation resulted after weeks of negotiations with the White House, which agreed to accept $17 billion in funding not requested by Bush as long as there were not restrictions on the military campaign.
Democratic leaders planned multiple votes in the House on Thursday to ensure the measure would ultimately pass because of disagreements among members on elements of the bill. One vote was to be on war funding, while another would be to approve the extra money for domestic and military-related projects.
While liberal Democrats were expected to vote against the war funds measure, GOP members were expected to make up for the losses. On the added spending, Democrats likely were to be unified in their support for the measure, overcoming GOP objections.