(Adds Rep. Boehner and Senate committee action)
By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, May 15 (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives, in a surprise and largely symbolic move, defeated legislation on Thursday to fund the war in Iraq for another year.
But it also sent the Senate a controversial troop withdrawal plan that will give that chamber an opportunity to restore the money for waging the conflict, which is deeply unpopular with the public.
With a large group of anti-war Democrats voting against giving the Pentagon $162.5 billion to keep fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through mid-2009, the House defeated the measure by a vote of 149-141.
Meanwhile, 132 Republicans voted "present" — meaning neither "yes" nor "no" — on the legislation, which brought another difficult debate about U.S. war policy just as the presidential and congressional elections are heating up and Republicans fear large losses in November.
House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio told reporters after the vote that his members wanted a bill that only provides war funds requested by President George W. Bush, without any conditions for withdrawing or unrelated spending.
Shortly after the House vote, the Senate Appropriations Committee granted Bush’s full request for war funding. But it also included non-binding language seeking to change the mission of U.S. troops in Iraq, by June 2009, from combat to counter-terrorism and training Iraqi forces.
The Senate panel’s bill also would spend about $9 billion more than Bush requested for a variety of programs, which could draw a White House veto. And it inserted other thorny provisions, such as providing $5 million to open a U.S. consulate in Lhasa, Tibet, where China has been accused of human rights abuses.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, told reporters he expects the Senate to restore the war funding and give House Republicans another chance to approve it, before existing war funds are depleted by next month or so.
The White House has threatened to veto setting dates for withdrawing combat troops from Iraq as part of a war-funding bill. Bush vetoed such a measure a year ago.
"The legislation provides for a new direction in Iraq that will end this sad chapter in America’s history and bring home our brave men and women in uniform," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, told reporters before the vote.
But in the face of the veto threat and Senate Republican opposition, even some House Democratic leaders acknowledged that their troop withdrawal plan likely would be abandoned before war funds are sent to Bush for his approval.
The House bill "seeks to tie the hands of our military commanders and impose an artificial timeline for withdrawal," the White House said.
MORE THAN $800 BILLION
Under the House-passed plan, U.S. combat troops, who have been fighting in Iraq since early 2003, would begin withdrawing within one month of the legislation being enacted and set a goal of completing the withdrawals by the end of 2009.
Assuming Congress eventually delivers the new funds, more than $800 billion will have been appropriated for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with most of the money going for Iraq.
By proposing to send the Defense Department enough money to fund the wars through mid-2009, Democratic leaders said they would have given the next president, who takes office in January, time to come up with his or her own war plans.
But the move also was aimed at eliminating the need for Congress to pass more war money shortly before the November congressional and presidential elections, in which the unpopular war is expected to play a prominent role.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain said on Thursday the five-year-old war in Iraq can be won in four more years. The Arizona senator had earlier talked about a U.S. military commitment that could continue for a century.
The House bill would also give more financial help to war veterans to attend college. Democrats want to pay the cost — $51.6 billion over 10 years — by imposing a 0.5 percent tax on individuals with gross incomes over $500,000 and couples making over $1 million.
Republicans said the tax would hurt small business owners.
Amid an economic downturn, the bill also would continue jobless benefits for an additional 13 weeks. In states where unemployment is highest, another 13 weeks of benefits would be added for a total cost of $11 billion over 10 years. (Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Thomas Ferraro; editing by Patricia Zengerle)