Democrats' toughest out-of-Iraq plan defeated in Senate

WASHINGTON — A Democratic antiwar proposal that would have cut off funding for combat in Iraq by next June was blocked 70-28 in the Senate on Thursday.

Twenty Democratic senators and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent Democrat, joined 49 Republicans in voting against shutting off debate on the proposal, effectively killing it. Even though the 20 Democrats favor ending U.S. involvement in the war, many have said they feared that shutting off money could harm the troops.

By backing the proposal, Senate Democratic leaders signaled to their antiwar base that they're still pushing for a mandate to end the war. At the same time, their defeat on this and other antiwar proposals underscored that Democrats can't get Congress to change Iraq policy so long as Republicans remain largely united behind President Bush's policy, as they've been all year.

The Republicans have successfully utilized a Senate rule that requires 60 votes to shut off debate and force a final vote on a bill's merits. By denying Democrats 60 votes, Republicans have shown time and again that they can block a final vote.

Republicans have blocked all manner of legislation repeatedly in the Senate since Democrats took power last January by the slimmest margin: 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans and two independents — Lieberman, who supports Bush's Iraq policy, and Bernard Sanders of Vermont, who opposes it.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he's open to a bipartisan compromise on Iraq, but he stressed Thursday that it would have to send a strong message to Bush that it's time to bring troops home.

"Understand this: Compromise is not giving up on our principles," Reid said. The goal is to change Iraq policy, not just pass antiwar legislation, he said.

He said Democrats would keep trying in the weeks ahead.

The proposal to cut off war funding next June was sponsored by Reid and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. It would've started withdrawal within 90 days and would get all combat troops out by June except for a small force that would focus on fighting terrorists and training Iraqis.

Feingold said the funding cutoff would take place after U.S. forces were out safely. Further money for the war could be spent only on the limited operations,

"The war in Iraq is not making us safer. It's making us more vulnerable," Feingold said. "It is stretching our military to the breaking point and inflaming tensions and anti-American sentiment in an important and volatile part of the world."

Muslims in the region don't want to be involved in what's widely seen as the U.S. occupation of an Islamic country, he said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who strongly supports the war, said a U.S. withdrawal would make it less likely that Iraqis could ever find a political solution that would bring peace to warring Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

He also said that Gen. David Petraeus' strategy of putting American forces among Iraqi soldiers had resulted in "very good gains in terms of operational capabilities of the Iraqi army." He also credited Petraeus' tactics with reducing the power of the group al Qaida in Iraq in Anbar province.

"It's not about who controls Iraq. It's about whether or not we can create a stable and functioning government that can contain Iran and deny al Qaida a safe haven," Graham said.

Three Democratic presidential contenders voted for the Feingold-Reid proposal: Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York, Barack Obama of Illinois and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. Another presidential hopeful, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., didn't vote.

The Senate will vote Friday on a plan that attempts to reduce the U.S. military presence in Iraq but doesn't specify a funding cutoff. Sponsored by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., it calls for beginning a withdrawal in 90 days and completing it in nine months. After that, American troops in Iraq would have missions limited to fighting terrorists, training Iraqis and protecting U.S. personnel and facilities.

Levin and Reed voted against Feingold's proposal.

Next week the Senate will vote on a Biden proposal to support a political settlement in Iraq that allows for creating autonomous Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Bob Casey, D-Pa., on Thursday announced a plan calling for greater U.S. support for diplomacy to stabilize Iraq and more American non-military assistance.