Democrats failed to ram an Iraq troop withdrawal plan through the Senate Thursday after first making headway on a similar move in the House of Representatives to force an end to the war four years after the US invasion.
Rancor between Congress's majority Democrats and President George W. Bush and his Republican backers hardened amid fierce debate over two bills advancing a timetable to get combat troops out of Iraq's cauldron of violence next year.
|Demonstrators wave signs during an anti-war demonstration on the National Mall in Washington, January 2007.|
The Senate rejected by 50 votes to 48 a Democratic bill which set a goal of a withdrawal of troops by March 2008, in the latest twist of a bitter political tussle over the war, which has claimed 3,209 US lives.
One Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, voted against the measure, while one Republican, Gordon Smith of Oregon, who has already broken with the president over the war, voted with the Democrats.
Bush had threatened to veto the bill, accusing Democrats of trying to micromanage the war and to handcuff his constitutional powers as commander in chief.
"Today, the United States Senate wisely rejected a resolution that would have placed an artificial timetable on our mission in Iraq," he said in a speech to fellow Republicans after the vote.
"If we were to leave Iraq before the job is done, the enemy would follow us to the United States of America and we're not going to let it happen," he said.
"The enemy would emerge from the chaos emboldened, with new safe havens, and new recruits, and new resources and an even greater determination to harm the United States of America," he said.
"I believe the members of Congress are sincere when they say they support our troops. And now is the time for them to show that support. Our men and women in uniform are risking their lives and they need the firm support of the United States Congress," he said.
Democrats had harbored little hope of piling up the 60 vote super-majority they needed to assure passage, but their strategy was designed to publicly tighten the screws on Republicans over the unpopular war.
In the House, Democrats did succeed in forcing a separate attempt to pull troops out of Iraq by September 2008 through the powerful Appropriations Committee.
Members voted to insert the deadline in Bush's 120 billion dollar budget request for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The full House is expected to consider the bill next week, but Bush has also threatened to veto it if it finds its way to his desk.
In the Senate, both sides claimed victory after their latest fracas.
"We have had a very good day. The Republicans are rubber-stamping the president's failed policy, that is the message here, said Democratic majority leader Harry Reid.
Republican Minority leader Mitch McConnell however said the Senate had made a landmark declaration against a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq.
"I am very pleased that the majority of the Senate today expressed themselves in opposition to a specific timeline for a withdrawal of troops," he said.
"That is like sending a memo to the enemy: 'just hold on to a certain date and we are out.'"
Senator Joseph Biden, Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee predicted Republican Senators would soon feel rising political heat.
"It is only a matter of time before our Republican colleagues come to that conclusion ... In the meantime a lot of innocent lives are going to be lost."
In a clutch of Iraq votes, the Senate meanwhile voted 96-2 to pass a Democratic bill expressing support for the troops in Iraq and calling for the provision of adequate medical care when they return home wounded.
The largely symbolic measure states that supporting the troops also means giving them proper training before they are deployed.
Some Democrats have accused the Bush administration of sending soldiers into harms way before they are ready to enter combat or are properly equipped.
A third resolution, perceived by some as an attempt to force Congress to finance all military operations, was also passed.
Congress theoretically has the power to cut funding for the war, but Democrat leaders have so far declined to take the politically explosive step that could be seen as deserting troops while they are locked in combat.
Democrats believe they have a mandate from US voters to begin a troop withdrawal, after winning control of Congress in November elections and a stream of opinion polls showing strong public support for leaving Iraq.
But Republicans have so far blocked all attempts to interfere with Bush's surge strategy that will see more than 21,500 troops deploy in a last-ditch attempt to pacify Iraq.