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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate on Tuesday endorsed a March 31, 2008, target date for withdrawing American combat troops from Iraq, prompting the White House to threaten a veto and moving Congress a step closer to a showdown with President George W. Bush over the war.
By a vote of 50-48, the Senate defeated an amendment that would have stricken the withdrawal language from a $121.6 billion bill that mostly would fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With the outcome in doubt, Vice President Dick Cheney was on hand in the Capitol in case he was needed to cast a tie-breaking vote.
A final vote on the bill is expected this week.
Following the vote, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino cited "encouraging signs" lately in Iraq. "The president is disappointed that the Senate continues down a path with a bill that he will veto and has no chance of becoming law," she added.
But Democrats showed no signs of backing down.
"This war is not worth the spilling of another drop of American blood," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said in pleading for the troop withdrawal plan included in the money bill.
Speaking to reporters following the Senate vote, Reid countered the White House veto threat, saying, "We would hope that the president understands how serious we are and the American people are and that, rather than making all the threats that he has, let's work with him" toward a compromise.
In action unrelated to the Iraq war, the Senate attached to the spending bill a minimum wage hike for some of the lowest-paid U.S. workers, along with tax cuts for small businesses.
The Senate troop withdrawal vote came four days after the House passed its version of a war-spending bill setting a mandatory September 1, 2008, deadline for getting all U.S. combat troops out of Iraq.
Under the Senate bill, which is still being debated, the United States would begin a phased withdrawal of troops this year with the goal, not the requirement, that it be completed by March 31, 2008.
Tuesday's vote in the Senate marked progress for Democrats in that chamber, who failed recently to pass a similar, nonbinding resolution calling for a troop withdrawal.
Two Republicans joined most Democrats in supporting the troop withdrawal goal.
Sen. John Warner, the Virginia Republican who has criticized Bush's plans to send about 30,000 more troops to Iraq, nonetheless pleaded for eliminating the withdrawal timetable from the legislation.
"It would be the bugle of retreat. It would be echoed and repeated from every minaret throughout Iraq that coalition forces have decided to take the first step backwards," said the former Senate Armed Services Committee chairman.
After the Senate finishes the bill, House and Senate negotiators will try to work out a compromise, which is expected to contain a troop withdrawal timetable.
The next stop is the White House and Bush's promised veto, unless a deal is worked out.
If there is a veto, Congress does not appear to have the votes to overturn Bush. Lawmakers would then try to write a new war-funding bill. It is unclear whether that would be a straightforward spending bill with no strings attached, or some new language on bringing the war, now in its fifth year, to an end.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, said the U.S. troop presence "is a catalyst for violence in Iraq and in the region." He pointed out that once the new funds are approved, Congress will have provided $448 billion for the war in Iraq.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Tabassum Zakaria