WASHINGTON --In the face of determined opposition from the Bush administration, the Senate yesterday began an impassioned debate over an exit strategy from Iraq, heading toward a vote on a Democratic resolution aimed at a pullout of American combat troops in 2008.
Underscoring the mounting tensions between the Democratic Congress and the White House, administration officials immediately issued a veto threat, though the measure is considered unlikely to win final passage. The administration's statement denounced the Democratic plan in forceful terms, declaring that it would "embolden our enemies" and "hobble American commanders in the field."
In the House, Democratic leaders scrambled on the eve of a critical test vote for their own Iraq legislation - a huge emergency spending bill that also includes a timetable for withdrawal in 2008. It is to go before the Appropriations Committee today and to the floor of the House next week.
The White House has vowed to veto that measure as well.
The Senate's long-awaited debate over Iraq, twice blocked last month by Republicans, opened along bitterly partisan lines. But it was also filled with sadness and dismay in both parties about the course of the war.
Sen. John McCain, Republican of Arizona and a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, acknowledged that "the situation is, indeed, dire," while arguing that it was too important for partisanship.
"Political parties don't lose wars," he said. "Nations lose wars, and nations suffer the consequences, and those consequences are far graver than a lost election."
At issue is a Democratic resolution that would set a goal of removing most combat troops from Iraq by March 31, 2008, and declare that the U.S. mission must be redefined to find a political - not a military - solution. Despite the measure's slim prospects for final passage, Democratic strategists hope that it will step up pressure on the administration and Republicans on Capitol Hill to shift course on a war that, many noted, will pass the four-year mark next week.
Republicans described the resolution as an exercise in micromanagement. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, called it "unprecedented in the powers it would arrogate to the Congress in a time of war."
Democrats countered that the resolution provided something the Republicans lacked - an exit strategy. Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, said, "To those who say we would micromanage the war, I say, "Isn't it time for somebody to manage the war?'"
Support for the resolution in the Senate appears confined to the Democrats.
The timing of a final vote is unclear, subject to negotiation between the parties' leaders, who left yesterday evening without reaching agreement. Debate began only when Republicans withdrew a parliamentary roadblock and joined Democrats, in a vote of 89-9, to proceed. Democratic Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland voted for debate.
The sudden shift in Republican strategy was intended in large part to blunt the charge that the party had been blocking debate on the top issue in the country.