WASHINGTON — After a rare all-night debate, Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked a Democratic plan that would have forced President Bush to begin withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq within 120 days and to complete it by next April.
The vote was 52-47 in favor of withdrawal, with four Republicans voting with Democrats, but the measure fell eight short of the 60-vote supermajority that Republicans insisted upon, using Senate rules. The total was also15 short of the 67 that would be needed to override a veto.
The vote, like one last week in the House of Representatives on a similar plan, showed that Republicans still overwhelmingly support Bush's war policies and retain enough power in Congress to sustain them, especially when backed by Bush's veto power. The House voted largely along party lines in favor of a withdrawal plan last week, passing it 223-201 — far short of the two-thirds needed to override a veto.
Many Republicans say that the right time to re-evaluate Iraq policy will be in September, after Gen. David Petraeus, the American commander in Iraq, makes recommendations in a formal report.
Democrats insisted on the all-night debate to try to stir public pressure on Republicans to break from Bush. But in the end only one Republican — Susan Collins of Maine — made a last-minute decision to join them, and she'd already been leaning that way publicly. Three other Republicans who voted for it — Sens. Olympia Snowe of Maine, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon Smith of Oregon — had announced their support days before.
Independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who usually votes with Democrats, sided with Republicans on this issue.
Senators stood up one after another through the night arguing that American lives and national security were at stake. Democrats argued that Iraqis were targeting Americans even as U.S. forces tried to protect them and that the only way to force Iraq's Shiite-led government to share power and resources was to announce a withdrawal.
"Our brave servicemen and women are dying and being wounded while Iraqi leaders dawdle," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a co-sponsor of the amendment along with Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. "The Iraqi leaders themselves made specific commitments to pass legislation relative to sharing power, sharing resources, amending their constitution and holding provincial elections. . . . And because they haven't kept their commitments, our troops are paying the price, caught in the crossfire of a civil war."
"There have been many flag-draped caskets, and there have been many broken Iraqi promises," noted Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "It is time for the Iraqis to stand and defend their own nation."
Republicans responded that Petraeus and Iraqi politicians needed more time.
"I just think some of my colleagues are taking an unrealistic approach when it comes to how fast we expect this new democracy to take political steps to solve some of these problems," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. They need security first before they can act, he said. "I hope we will do nothing that would lead to the likelihood of a failed state and give al Qaida a foothold in Iraq."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a presidential contender and strong supporter of the war, guided Republican opposition to the plan for most of 24 hours. He was on the Senate floor through the night, speaking at around 2, 3, 4 and 9 a.m., then again at 10:25, shortly before the vote.
"Nothing we have done for the last 24 hours will have changed any facts on the ground in Iraq or made the outcome of the war any more or less important to the security of our country," McCain said as the debate wrapped up. He said voting for the withdrawal amendment would be a mistake of "colossal proportions."
The defeated measure would have limited the mission of U.S. forces in Iraq to fighting international terrorists, protecting fellow Americans and training Iraqi forces. It aimed to pull U.S. troops out of policing the sectarian strife between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Decisions on how many forces would remain in Iraq would be left up to Bush and his military commanders. The amendment also called for a diplomatic, political and economic strategy that would draw in Iraq's neighbors, other nations and the United Nations.
After Wednesday's vote, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pulled the defense policy bill from consideration, and the Senate moved on to other business.
"Our colleagues in the Senate are going to have a chance to go home, explain their votes and vote again," said Durbin. "And eventually, I am confident, they'll join us in changing the direction in Iraq."
That means there will not be votes anytime soon on other pending amendments aimed at prodding Bush to speed withdrawal. Reid said the amendment defeated Wednesday would come up for a vote again, but didn't say when. Reid voted against it in a procedural move to make reconsideration possible.