WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush’s fellow Republicans in the Senate on Wednesday blocked a Democratic proposal to force him to withdraw American combat troops from Iraq after a rare round-the-clock debate.
The action prompted weary and frustrated Senate Democrats to postpone consideration of other measures to bring the war to an end. But they voiced confidence more Republicans would soon join their efforts.
On a vote of 52-47, backers fell short of the needed 60 to clear a Republican procedural hurdle and move toward passage of an April 30, 2008, deadline for removing U.S. combat troops from Iraq.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada responded by suspending consideration on a defense policy bill until Republicans drop procedural tactics that prevented passage of the withdrawal plan.
“There are two things that I want to accomplish. One is to pass a defense authorization bill, but with a deadline dealing with Iraq,” Reid said. “If that’s tomorrow, we’ll do it tomorrow. If it’s later, we’ll do it later.”
Critics called the nearly 24-hour Senate debate, which had featured cots, pillows and take-out pizza, a theatrical stunt by Democrats who have been hammered for their inability to keep a 2006 campaign vow to end the increasingly unpopular war.
White House press secretary Tony Snow tweaked Congress, whose approval ratings have dropped to under 25 percent, beneath those even for the unpopular Bush.
“You had a Senate that brought in the cots yesterday, which is a pretty good metaphor for a Senate that’s been asleep for the last seven months,” Snow said.
But Democrats described the debate as a wake-up call to pressure wavering Republicans, many of whom are up for re-election next year, to break ranks with Bush.
Reid had urged support for the measure, which would have begun troop withdrawals within 120 days, saying, “It couldn’t be clearer that if you give this president a choice, he will stay hunkered down in Iraq until the end of his failed presidency.”
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky countered that the measure was a poor alternative to current strategy. “Last night’s theatrics accomplished nothing,” McConnell said.
Democrats’ drive to change the course of the war likely will now move back to the House of Representatives, which was expected to stage more votes on Iraq before an August recess.
“We’re not done,” a House leadership aide said. Last week, the House approved a troop withdrawal plan, although it appears to have little, if any, immediate chance to clear Senate Republican roadblocks.
But Assistant Senate Democratic leader Dick Durbin of Illinois said he expected a number of Republicans to switch positions in coming months.
“It’s going to be an interesting summer for a lot of senators who have either told their home states that they are ready for change or know in their heart of hearts that they cannot sustain” support for the war, Durbin told Reuters.
The Senate may not return to the war debate until after its August recess when the Pentagon is to give a mid-September report to Congress on progress in Iraq.
“By the end of September, this could be a different debate,” Durbin said.
In addition to withdrawing combat troops by the end of April, the Democratic measure blocked by Republicans would have kept an unspecified number of noncombat U.S. troops in Iraq to help train Iraqi soldiers, conduct counterterrorism missions and protect U.S. diplomats.
Democrats noted that more than 3,600 U.S. soldiers had been killed in the war, now in its fifth year, and that a change in strategy was needed amid a mounting civil war. Republicans warned a troop pullout would embolden terrorists and increase the risk of attack on the United States.
Four Republicans broke with Bush and voted to move toward passage of the withdrawal amendment. Independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who normally votes with Democrats but backs the war, joined Republicans in blocking the measure.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Caren Bohan