WASHINGTON -- The Senate approved yesterday a war funding measure calling for U.S. troops to be withdrawn from Iraq next year, and Democratic leaders warned President Bush that he risks undermining the troops on the battlefield if he vetoes the bill as promised.
With the vote, both houses of Congress are on record as supporting a timetable for a U.S. pullout.
The Senate vote went mostly along party lines, with Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon H. Smith of Oregon joining the Democrats to pass the emergency spending measure for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Included in the bill is a requirement that withdrawal from Iraq begin within 120 days, as well as a nonbinding goal of bringing home nearly all U.S. troops by March 31, 2008.
After passing the measure, Senate Democrats challenged Bush to sign the legislation or face the judgment of history.
"I don't know if you could find in history any time that a president has done more to undermine the troops in the field than this," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "If the president vetoes this bill, it is an asterisk in history. He sets the record for undermining troops more than any president we've ever had."
But the president was not backing away from a showdown. Flanked by House Republicans whom he had summoned to the White House to rally party consensus on Iraq, Bush again promised to veto the legislation as soon as it reaches his desk.
"We stand united in saying loud and clear that when we've got a troop in harm's way, we expect that troop to be fully funded," Bush said on the North Portico of the White House. "We've got commanders making tough decisions on the ground. We expect there to be no strings on our commanders."
Leaders on both sides of the aisle expected yesterday's outcome after Republicans were unable to pass an amendment earlier this week that would have stripped the withdrawal language from the $123 billion spending measure.
Along with war funding, the legislation includes billions of dollars for unrelated projects that Republicans have derided as "pork-barrel spending." Republicans have criticized provisions such as $100 million in grants to the host cities of the 2008 political conventions to help defray security costs and $25 million to help pay for background checks for immigrants filing for government benefits.
Democrats defended the projects and called on Bush to tone down the rhetoric and come to the table to negotiate, while throwing barbs at the president for his handling of the war.
"What is in this bill regarding Iraq is what the American people said they wanted on Nov. 7 and what they have said in a more amplified manner since then," Reid said. He noted that some of the so-called pork includes Hurricane Katrina relief and money to assist returning military veterans.
Maryland's two senators, Democrats Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, voted in favor of the measure.
Mikulski said the bill "states clearly that Congress and the American people will continue to support and protect our troops."
"I agree with the strong grass-roots movement in my home state ... and throughout the nation that says we must act now to end this war," she said in a statement. She added that the bill "supports our troops, follows the will of the American people, and follows the advice of the Iraq Study Group. It is time to change our direction in Iraq and bring our forces home swiftly and safely."
The bill contains more than $446 million for military facilities in Maryland and up to $65 million to address a shortfall in the State Children's Health Insurance Program
With the White House reiterating its promise to veto any legislation that sets an end date for the war and Democrats insisting that they will stand their ground, the Senate's vote set the table for a colossal game of chicken when the House and Senate return from their spring recess in mid-April.
Sen. Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat who had voted Tuesday for a Republican-sponsored amendment to remove the timetable, voted in favor of the legislation yesterday despite its inclusion of one.
"Although I am opposed to public timelines, I strongly believe emergency funding for equipment, armor, ammunition and other resources must move forward to keep our troops safe on the battlefield," Pryor said in a statement. "President Bush should not stand in the way either. Let's be clear: If he vetoes this bill, he will be the one standing between American troops and the equipment they need."
Last week, the House passed a similar war spending bill that called for all combat troops to be out of Iraq by September 2008. Reid said House and Senate leaders were working to reconcile the two versions of the bill and added that Congress would send the unified legislation to Bush after Congress returns from its break.
"The ball is in the president's court," Reid said, adding that he hopes Bush will quickly sign it into law.
Bush has made clear that he has no intention of doing so. But the president finds himself in perhaps his most politically vulnerable position since the start of the war four years ago.
Opinion polls show that nearly 60 percent of Americans support legislation setting an end date to U.S. involvement in the war. And on Wednesday, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, one of America's closest allies in the Arab world, said the bloodshed in Iraq is occurring under an "illegal foreign occupation."
But the White House is trying to turn the pressure back on the Democratic leadership, demanding that Democrats present Bush with a "clean" war spending bill, devoid of pork or timetables, and saying that they are putting troops in harm's way, since funding is set to dry up in a matter of weeks.
With slim majorities in both chambers, it is highly unlikely that the Democrats have enough votes to override a Bush veto.
Aamer Madhani writes for the Chicago Tribune. Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.