Dems unable to pass troop legislation

Published 11:07 pm Friday, November 16, 2007

WASHINGTON (AP) — Nearly a year after anti-war voters put them in power, congressional Democrats remain unable to pass legislation ordering troops home from Iraq.

Frustrated by Republican roadblocks, Democrats now plan to sit on President Bush’s $196 billion request for war spending until next year — pushing the Pentagon toward an accounting nightmare and deepening their conflict with the White House on the war.

‘‘We’re going to continue to do the right thing for the American people by having limited accountability for the president and not a blank check,’’ said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

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Senate Republicans on Friday blocked a $50 billion bill by Democrats that would have paid for several months of combat but also would have ordered troop withdrawals from Iraq to begin within 30 days. The measure, narrowly passed this week by the House, also would have set a goal of ending combat in December 2008.

The 53-45 vote was seven votes short of the 60 needed to advance. It came minutes after the Senate rejected a Republican proposal to pay for the Iraq war with no strings attached.

Now, Democratic leaders say they won’t send President Bush a war spending bill this year. They calculate the military has enough money to run through mid-February.

Responding to the congressional blockage, Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Friday signed a memo ordering the Army to begin planning for a series of expected cutbacks, including the layoffs of as many as 100,000 civilian employees and another 100,000 civilian contractors, starting as early as January, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.

‘‘The memo reflects the urgency of the situation we find ourselves in — we are in a real crisis,’’ Morrell said, noting that layoff notices to some civilian employees would have to be sent as early as mid-December. He decried Congress’ refusal thus far to provide the money needed to continue fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, accusing lawmakers of ‘‘holding hostage the well-being of our men and women in uniform, and our national security.’’

The delay will satisfy a Democratic support base that is fiercely anti-war. But it also will give Republicans and the White House ample time to hammer Democrats for leaving for the holidays without funding the troops.

‘‘We ought to get the troops the funding they need to finish the mission without restrictions and without a surrender date,’’ said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

At the White House on Friday, deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said the spending gap is unjustified.

‘‘We’d rather see the Department of Defense, the military planners and our troops focusing on military maneuvers rather than accounting maneuvers as they carry out their mission in the field,’’ Fratto said.

Since taking the reins of Congress in January, Democrats have struggled to pass any significant anti-war legislation. Measures that passed along party lines in the House repeatedly sank in the Senate, where Democrats hold a much narrower majority and 60 votes are routinely needed to overcome procedural hurdles.

In May, Republicans agreed not to stand in the way of a $95 billion bill that would have set a timetable for troop withdrawals. Bush rejected the measure and Democrats lacked the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto, as Republicans anticipated.

Democrats eventually stripped the timetable from the bill and sent Bush the money without restrictions on force levels. The move was an unpopular one with many Democratic voters who say Congress should cut off money for the war.

As the year progressed, Democrats hoped for Republican defections. But a drop in violence this fall in Iraq helped to shore up GOP support for the war.

On Friday, only four Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the Iraq measure: Sens. Gordon Smith of Oregon, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Susan Collins of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

Sen. Christopher Dodd was the lone Democrat opposing it because he said it did not go far enough to end the war. Other Democrats, including Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, said they too opposed the bill as too soft but that they supported advancing debate.

‘‘The only way to end the war is with a firm deadline that is enforceable through funding,’’ said Dodd, D-Conn.

Democrats acknowledge recent progress made by the military in Iraq but contend the security will be short-lived unless the Iraqi government reaches a political settlement.

‘‘We need to do more than say to the Iraqis that our patience has run out and that they need to seize the opportunity that has been given them,’’ said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. ‘‘Their dawdling will only end when they have no choice.’’

Republicans on Friday tried to counter with an alternative proposal that would have paid $70 billion toward the war without restrictions. That measure failed by a vote of 45-53, falling 15 short of the 60 needed to advance.

Republicans said there were appalled by Sen. Chuck Schumer’s comment, reported by The Associated Press on Thursday, that the Bush administration wouldn’t get a ‘‘free lunch.’’

Schumer, D-N.Y., had told reporters that unless Bush accepted the restrictions, the Defense Department would have to eat into its core budget.

‘‘The days of a free lunch are over,’’ he said.

Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan said Schumer’s comments were ‘‘unbelievable,’’ and Rep. Heather Wilson said the senator should apologize to the troops.

‘‘Sen. Schumer only wants to fund pay, body armor and chow for the troops if he can put conditions on the money so that they cannot do the mission they have been ordered to do,’’ said Wilson, R-N.M.

The Pentagon confirms the military will not run out of money until mid February, after which all Army bases would cease operations.


AP Military Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.


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