WASHINGTON—Rejecting President Bush's plans to build up American military forces in Iraq, the Senate passed a $123 billion bill Thursday that fully funds the war but demands that U.S. forces start to exit.
The emergency-spending bill, mainly for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, passed 51-47, with most Democrats voting for it and most Republicans against. It was the first time the Senate passed a bill that challenged the president's war plans, and it paves the way for a conflict with Bush in the weeks ahead.
Bush says he'll veto the measure. Democrats are unlikely to muster the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto, so their efforts to change the Iraq war mission and start to withdraw troops could end up being pushed back to later this year.
Now a congressional committee will work out differences with a similar House of Representatives bill. Shortly after Congress returns from its spring break in April it's expected to send a final version to Bush. Bush said he'd veto the bill if a troop departure date and "too much spending" for things unrelated to the war remained in it. The extra funds include money for military and veterans health care, hurricane relief and natural disaster farm subsidies, as well as $100 million for the 2008 political conventions.
Both the House and Senate versions of the bill call for the gradual withdrawal of most U.S. combat forces. Some would remain to fight terrorists, train Iraqis and protect other American forces. The Senate bill calls for troops to begin leaving Iraq after four months and sets a goal of withdrawal by March 31, 2008.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said the bill "sends a clear message to the president that we must take the war in Iraq in a new direction. . . . A new direction provides incentives to the Iraqi people to settle their differences, to end their civil war and to pursue reconciliation."
Byrd, the main architect of the Senate bill, said he hoped Bush would "work with Congress to craft a responsible plan to transition our forces from Iraq and refocus on (Osama) bin Laden and his base of operations."
Bush countered: "We stand united in saying loud and clear that when we've got a troop in harm's way, we expect that troop to be fully funded. And we've got commanders making tough decisions on the ground; we expect there to be no strings on our commanders. And that we expect the Congress to be wise about how they spend the people's money."
Most Senate Republicans backed him, arguing against setting a date to begin a troop drawdown.
"Surely this will embolden the enemy. It will not help our troops in any way," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
But Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, speaking Thursday at a congressional hearing, said the debate had been "helpful in bringing pressure to bear" on the Iraqi government by showing "there is a very real limit to American patience in this entire enterprise."
Until the vote, Senate Democrats had been unable to pass any challenge to the president's war policy. But on the war-spending bill, Republicans decided not to use a procedural rule to require a 60-vote majority. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said it was better to send the bill to Bush for his veto. That way Congress could consider a new version without conditions.
Time is pressing because the Pentagon says its war money will run out this spring.
The Bush veto could force Democrats to give up departure demands to avoid delaying money for the troops, but they could use the power of the purse to restrict future war funding.
Democrats didn't disclose options, but said Thursday that the next step was up to Bush.
"The ball is in the president's court," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "We have done what we had to do to take care of people who are fighting for us."
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said the Republicans couldn't accept the requirement for some American forces to start to withdraw in 120 days.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said she was "stunned" that the Senate passed a bill "that says it doesn't matter what's happening in 120 days, we're going to direct the president to start withdrawing our troops."
The Senate bill's add-ons included $6.7 billion for hurricane relief, $4.2 billion to pay subsidies to farmers hit by natural disasters, and more than $4.3 billion for health care for wounded servicemen and women.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, accused Democrats of "larding up" the bill with issues not related to the wars.
Senators debated but eventually left in such spending as cost-of-living adjustments for federal judges and $100 million to secure the 2008 Democratic and Republican party conventions. Some of the spending might be cut in the conference committee to give the bill a better chance of getting the president's signature.
If the war funding is approved, Congress will have appropriated $448 billion for the war in Iraq, including $38 billion for rebuilding the country.
In Thursday's vote, Republican Sens. Gordon Smith of Oregon and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska joined with Democrats in voting for the bill. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent Democrat, voted with Republicans against it.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.