WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton earned praise from anti-war activists but criticism from Republicans on Friday for voting against a measure to pay for the Iraq war that sets no timetables for withdrawing U.S. troops.
The two leading 2008 Democratic presidential contenders had been under heavy pressure from the party's influential anti-war wing and from other Democratic candidates to oppose the emergency funding bill sought by President George W. Bush.
Unlike an earlier funding bill Bush vetoed on May 1, the measure passed comfortably on Thursday by the Senate and House of Representatives did not have deadlines for pulling out U.S. combat troops.
Obama and Clinton had refused to say how they would vote, but ultimately sided with opponents of the increasingly unpopular war. Liberal advocacy groups like MoveOn.org had warned Democrats who backed the measure of possible political consequences.
Republican presidential contenders John McCain and Mitt Romney blasted Obama and Clinton for not supporting U.S. troops -- a criticism likely to linger into next year's general election campaign and the November 2008 vote for the White House.
"I was very disappointed to see Senator Obama and Senator Clinton embrace the policy of surrender," said McCain, an Arizona senator who backed the bill.
"This vote may win favor with MoveOn and liberal primary voters, but it's the equivalent of waving a white flag to al Qaeda," McCain said, setting off a testy exchange with Obama.
STROLL THROUGH BAGHDAD MARKET
Obama said Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and McCain "clearly believe the course we are on is working, but I do not," and said proof could be found in McCain's need for heavy security on a recent stroll through a Baghdad market.
McCain, a Vietnam War veteran, said his experience gave him a different view than Obama had gained during "two years in the U.S. Senate."
Two other Democratic senators running for president split their votes, with Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd voting against it and Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden for it.
The bill passed 280-142 in the House and 80-14 in the Senate.
Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org, praised the bill's opponents.
"Senators Obama, Clinton and Dodd stood up and did the right thing -- voting down the president's war policy," Pariser said. "They're showing real leadership toward ending the war, and MoveOn's members are grateful."
Other Democratic contenders like John Edwards, a former senator, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson had urged Congress to reject the measure.
Clinton has angered anti-war Democrats with her refusal to apologize or repudiate her 2002 vote to authorize the war in Iraq, while Obama stresses his early opposition to the war.
While initially reluctant to back withdrawal timetables, Clinton and Obama voted for the earlier bill that included them.
Analysts said opposing the bill was a safe choice for Democrats given the public mood against the war. But the delay in making a decision by Obama and Clinton made them appear calculating, said Cal Jillson, a political analyst at Southern Methodist University in Texas.
"Neither Hillary nor Obama have been beacons of courage," he said. "People are saying 'Do you guys have the sense of self and the confidence to state a position and then defend it?' And both of them have been hiding in the bushes."
Clinton, of New York, said she supported the troops but opposed the bill because "it fails to compel the president to give our troops a new strategy in Iraq." Obama, of Illinois, said U.S. troops deserved more.
Biden, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, said Democrats did not have the votes yet to overcome Bush's veto and the troops needed to be funded.
"The president may be prepared to play a game of political chicken with the well-being of our troops. I am not. I will not," Biden said.