(adds Bush, Sen. Byrd and details)
By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, May 22 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Thursday approved an additional $165 billion to wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan for another year after lawmakers blocked proposed timetables for withdrawing American troops from Iraq.
By a vote of 70-26, the Senate passed the new war money the Pentagon says it urgently needs to avoid civilian layoffs and the interruption of soldiers’ paychecks within months.
The House of Representatives still must weigh in on the legislation. Last week, it passed a drastically different bill that failed to provide any new money for the wars and would withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2009.
The House is likely to consider its next step in early June after lawmakers return from a week-long recess.
President George W. Bush, speaking to U.S. troops at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, repeated his opposition to Congress setting troop withdrawal schedules or other conditions on the Pentagon.
"The United States Congress needs to pass a responsible war funding bill that does not tie the hands of our commanders," Bush said.
Assuming lawmakers ultimately give Bush the war funds he has requested, Congress will have appropriated more than $800 billion for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Most of the money has gone for the unpopular war in Iraq.
As the Senate was debating the new war money, a House panel was looking into allegations that the Defense Department had failed to properly account for $15 billion in expenditures in Iraq, much of that for payments to contractors.
Besides the war funding, the Senate also attached expensive expansions of U.S. unemployment benefits and help for war veterans who want to get a college education. Bush opposes those measures, as well as other domestic spending included by the Senate.
Noting that Bush has asked for money to continue rebuilding Iraq and for other foreign aid projects, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, said, "But the president says he will veto the bill if we add funding for bridges in Birmingham or for help with the high cost of energy bills in Maine or to fight crime in U.S. towns..."
The two Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, interrupted their campaigns to cast votes against the war money. They voted for expanding veterans’ benefits and more jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed in the United States.
In a floor speech, Obama, who has a nearly insurmountable lead in the Democratic race, attacked Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who was not present to vote.
Prefacing his remarks by saying he respected McCain’s military service, Obama added, "But I can’t understand why he would line up behind the president in opposition of this GI bill" to help veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars pay for their college educations.
McCain backs a less extensive version of the veterans education bill.
Clinton, noting lawmakers’ penchant for giving speeches about supporting U.S. troops, also argued for the expanded veterans benefits. "The real test isn’t the speeches we deliver but whether or not we deliver on the speeches," Clinton said.
In approving the money for the wars just before the Memorial Day holiday, Democrats who control the Senate hoped to blunt Bush administration criticisms that Congress has been slow to provide money for the troops.
And in approving enough money to pay for the controversial war in Iraq for a full year, Congress would avoid another war-funding debate closer to the November presidential and congressional elections.
It also would give the new president, who takes office next January, time to come up with his or her plans for the Iraq war, which is now in its sixth year. (Editing by Jackie Frank)