Washington -- Forty-four Republican senators backed a plan yesterday to tie continued economic aid to Iraq to the performance of its government, the strongest demonstration yet of GOP willingness to impose limits on the president's management of the war.
And in an indication of growing Democratic resolve to force an end to the war, a majority of Democratic senators supported a second measure that would have cut off funding for most combat operations in Iraq by the end of March. Both proposals failed to win the support needed to proceed to a debate and a vote on the measures.
The plan to link aid to benchmarks that the Iraqi government would have to meet - sponsored by Republican Sens. John W. Warner of Virginia and Susan M. Collins of Maine - drew the votes of 52 senators, short of the 60 needed to begin debate. Only 29 lawmakers voted to move forward with debate of the funding cut-off plan sponsored by Sen. Russ Feingold and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Despite the failure of both measures - amendments to an unrelated bill to fund water projects - the Iraq-related votes in the Senate underlined how drastically Congress is moving to respond to public dismay with the war.
"It is clear that change is in the air," Assistant Senate Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said after the vote. "Our resolutions have not passed, but they will pass. I don't know how many more bodies will come home, how many more injured soldiers there will be. But a growing tension in this country over this war will lead us to the right conclusion."
The Feingold-Reid plan, introduced last month, would restrict funding at the end of March for all but a limited range of military operations, which would include protecting U.S. personnel, training Iraqi forces and conducting limited counter-terrorism operations.
Among the supporters of Feingold's plan yesterday were the Senate's top four Democrats: Reid; Durbin; New York's Charles E. Schumer, who heads the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee; and Washington's Patty Murray, the conference secretary for the Democratic Caucus. Also backing the plan were four Democratic senators running for president: Delaware's Joseph R. Biden Jr.; New York's Hillary Rodham Clinton; Connecticut's Christopher J. Dodd; and Illinois' Barack Obama.
Democratic Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland also supported the measure.
Under the Warner plan, the president would have to certify in July that the Iraqi government is making progress on a series of political benchmarks, such as disarming militias and passing legislation to equitably distribute oil revenues. Absent such a certification, economic aid to Iraq would be suspended.
However, Warner, who has repeatedly expressed deference to presidential authority as the Iraq debate has intensified, included a provision that would allow the president to waive the requirement.
Although the measure includes this escape clause, the vote yesterday marked the first time a majority of Republicans backed any condition on Bush's management of the four-year-old war.
The president has insisted for years on a free hand to conduct U.S. policy in Iraq. And until recently, he rejected any consequences for failures by the Iraqi government to meet benchmarks.
Reid, however, derided the Warner proposal as "weak" and compared it to "a cup of tea that has been sitting on the table for a few weeks."
In contrast, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, cast it as a mark of Republican determination to hold the Iraqi government accountable. "The Iraqi government ... needs to understand they are running out of time to get their part of the job done," McConnell said. "It is those kind of messages we are sending."
Noam N. Levey writes for the Los Angeles Times.