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Politics

Senate approves funding for Afghan troop increase

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate approved funds Thursday to pay for President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan troop increase but rejected a demand that he submit a timetable to bring forces home.

The chamber’s top Democrats were split over an Afghan exit strategy, with some influential lawmakers backing the call for one, a division likely to raise hackles in the White House.

Their support could encourage other liberal Democrats who are pushing for a similar proposal in the House of Representatives, where many lawmakers are also under pressure before congressional elections in November.

The House is expected to take up its version of the war funds legislation next month.

Most of the $33 billion in war spending approved by the Senate is to finance the 30,000 troop “surge” in Afghanistan that Obama announced in December, although some of it covers expenses in Iraq.

An additional $4 billion is for the State Department to fund the “civilian surge,” bringing economic aid to Afghanistan and its neighbor, Pakistan. The new money is in addition to about $130 billion Congress already approved for Afghanistan and Iraq for this year -- and over $300 billion since 2001 just for the war in Afghanistan.

The Senate voted 67-28 to fund the troops. Many of those opposing the funding were Republicans who said they were concerned that ways were not found to pay for the new spending with cuts to other programs.

The Senate shelved a Republican bid to make the cuts, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid scoffed that Republicans “never raised a fuss about paying for the war under President (George W.) Bush.”

SIGNS OF UNEASE

While the Senate voted 80-18 to reject the call for a pullout timetable, there were signs of growing unease inside Obama’s Democratic Party over the nine-year-old war.

Liberal Democrat Russ Feingold proposed the exit strategy amendment, saying while Obama had set July 2011 as a starting date for removing U.S. troops, there should be an end date.

“The president should convey to the American and Afghan people how long he anticipates it will take to complete his military objectives,” said Feingold.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin argued strongly against Feingold’s idea. Announcing an exit strategy would “reinforce the fear ... that the United States will abandon the region,” Levin said.

He added that was unwise as the Taliban was “doing everything it can” to convince Afghans that U.S., NATO and Afghan forces cannot protect them.

No Republicans supported Feingold’s call for an exit strategy. But several senators in Democratic leadership positions voted for it, including Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin and Senators Patty Murray, Byron Dorgan and Chuck Schumer.

Reid opposed the proposal.

There was some anxiety among senators that U.S. combat deaths had passed 1,000 in Afghanistan and the cost of the war topped $300 billion.

“I’m impatient. Time to start thinking about a different approach, I think,” Senator Tom Harkin said earlier this week.

Senator Jeff Bingaman, another Democrat, said, “I think there’s a high level of impatience, but exactly what should be done legislatively about that issue, I don’t know.”

Other spending priorities were included in the war funding bill: $13 billion for benefits for Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange; $5.1 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency; $2.8 billion for rebuilding Haiti; $400 million for U.S. flood relief; and $68 million to help address the impact of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Editing by Sue Pleming and Peter Cooney

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