WASHINGTON -- Setting the stage for a confrontation with President Bush over the war in Iraq, the Senate voted yesterday for the first time to back a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops.
The 50-48 vote turned aside a Republican bid to strip the timelines from a $122 billion emergency spending bill being sought by the White House to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With Republicans unexpectedly giving up plans to block the bill, the Senate appears poised to pass the bill and its timelines as soon as today.
With the House having approved its timelines last week, congressional Democrats are close to presenting the president with the choice of vetoing the essential war funding or negotiating directly with war critics in a way he has never done.
"He doesn't get everything he wants now, so I think it's time that he started working with us," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who is the chief architect of the Democratic campaign to pressure the president to alter his war policy. "The president must change course."
The Senate bill would require the president to begin pulling out troops within 120 days of the measure's enactment and would set a "goal" of completing the withdrawal by March 31, 2008.
Bush has repeatedly rejected timelines, criticizing them for tying the hands of commanders in the field. Yesterday, the White House repeated a veto threat that the president delivered last week after the House approved its version of the war funding bill, which would require a withdrawal of most U.S. troops no later than August 2008.
"The president is disappointed that the Senate continues down a path with a bill that he will veto and has no chance of becoming law," said deputy White House press secretary Dana Perino.
Since Democrats became the majority on Capitol Hill in January, the White House has been able to count on Republican lawmakers to back up those warnings with legislative action.
Twice last month, Senate Republicans, weathering accusations that they were preventing debate on the most important issue facing the country, filibustered nonbinding resolutions criticizing the president's plan to send additional troops to Iraq.
Less than two weeks ago, the Senate rejected a resolution that, like the war funding bill, called for a troop pullout by March 31, 2008. Then, two Democrats and one independent voted with the Republicans.
This week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, indicated that Senate Republicans would not use their power to filibuster the spending bill, even though Democrats stood little chance of mustering the 60 votes needed to overcome such a maneuver.
McConnell and other GOP lawmakers said the decision reflected their desire to get a bill to the president's desk quickly so that he could veto it and Congress would be forced to pass a spending measure without the limits.
He and other GOP lawmakers continue to criticize the Democratic plan for timelines as a strategy for defeat that would hobble the administration's plan to boost troop levels to fight Sunni insurgents in Anbar province and to contain sectarian violence in Baghdad.
"Conditions have changed in Iraq," Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, told his Senate colleagues, noting decreasing ethnic violence and increased cooperation from Iraqi authorities. "The Baghdad security plan, the surge, is working far better than even the most optimistic supporter had predicted. Markets that have been subject to horrific car bombings have been turned into pedestrian malls."
Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor and Connecticut independent Joseph I. Lieberman, who caucuses with Democrats, voted with the GOP. Not voting were Tim Johnson, a South Dakota Democrat who is in a rehabilitation facility after suffering a brain hemorrhage late last year, and Michael B. Enzi, a Wyoming Republican.
Noam Levey writes for the Los AngelesTimes.