WASHINGTON — In another defeat for Democrats trying to change President Bush's Iraq policy, the Senate on Wednesday blocked legislation requiring that members of the active-duty military must spend at least as much time in the United States as they've spent in Iraq or Afghanistan before they can be sent back to the war zones again.
Democrats plan several more bills in the next few weeks to try to speed troop withdrawals, but the one on "dwell time" was considered their best chance to get the 60 votes needed under Senate rules to shut off debate. It fell four votes short: 56-44.
A weaker "sense of the Senate" version that would've endorsed the policy as a desirable goal without mandating it also fell short, 55-45.
American soldiers generally now are deployed to Iraq for 15 months and get 12 months back in the United States, which includes time away from home spent training for their next missions.
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a former Navy secretary and a decorated Vietnam veteran, proposed the amendment. He said it would "put a safety net under our troops" while the debate on Iraq goes on.
"Somebody needs to referee this mess to restore balance in their lives, so they can have a life," he said at a news conference before the vote.
"Somebody has to speak up for the rifleman," put in Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a co-author of amendment, who served as an infantryman in Vietnam.
"There is no urgency in Iraq that justifies the continued deployments in the way that these deployments have taken place," Webb said. "You take a look at your manpower available, and you apply that manpower to your operational strategy. That's the way the military is supposed to work."
Webb's plan also would've required that members of the National Guard and Reserves be deployed only after they've been at home for three years. Special operations forces would have been exempt.
The president could've waived the provisions after certifying that deployment was necessary to meet an "operational emergency posing a threat to vital national security interests of the United States."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent Democrat from Connecticut, quoted from a letter from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., saying that the Webb measure "would significantly increase the risk to our service members and lead to a return to unpredictable tour lengths and home station periods."
"I will not support this slow-bleed strategy in Iraq," said Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., in opposing Webb's amendment. "It ties the hands of our commanders. I cannot remember a time in history when the Congress of the United States has dictated to our commanders on the ground how to conduct their mission to this extent. This is an extremely dangerous amendment."
Added Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla.: "I feel for the servicemen. Fifteen-month deployments are very tough." But Martinez said that Gates was trying to make tours shorter and that Congress shouldn't tell the Pentagon "what they should do on troop rotation."
Gates has said that the amendment would create difficult management problems for the Pentagon. He said that in some cases American forces might be pulled out before their successors could arrive, some units wouldn't end up going to Iraq with the same people who trained together and that the Pentagon might have to call more on Guard and Reserve forces.
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, voted for the measure in July, when it also fell four votes short of the 60 needed, but he voted against it on Wednesday. Warner is a former Navy secretary who served as a sailor in World War II and as a Marine in the Korean War.
"I agree with the principles that you laid down in your amendment," Warner said, addressing Webb on the Senate floor. "But I regret to say I've been convinced by those in the professional uniform that they cannot do it in a way that wouldn't invoke further unfairness to those now serving in Iraq."
Warner said military officials told him they could manage to impose equal times in the United States and at war by October 2008.
While Warner voted against the amendment, he said he was "gravely concerned" that American active-duty forces and reserves "were being pushed to their limits" and added that he believed "far more of the responsibility" should be borne by Iraqi forces.