WASHINGTON -- After a heated, all-day debate on the Senate floor that pitted combat veterans against combat veterans and one former secretary of the Navy against another, lawmakers failed to require the Pentagon to give U.S. troops as much time to rest at home as they spend in the theater overseas.
It was a significant defeat for critics of the Iraq war, who have been trying for months to withdraw troops over President Bush's objection.
Democratic leaders had believed that the amendment, offered by a former Navy secretary, Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, was the best path for ending the war in Iraq and forcing the administration to quickly bring the troops back home.
But the White House and the Pentagon put intense pressure on Republican senators to reject the proposal, threatening a veto of the legislation and warning that it would inexorably harm the ability of military leaders to run the war.
The amendment failed to reach 60 votes, the threshold agreed to by both sides of the aisle, even as the Senate voted 56-44 in favor of it, quashing Democratic hopes of bringing the war to a close. The Senate then similarly failed, 55-45, to pass a nonbinding "sense of the Senate" resolution that also called for more rest time for the troops.
Republican Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a staunch critic of the war and co-sponsor of the Webb amendment, said yesterday's outcome means Republicans will continue to stick with Bush for at least the rest of the year.
"It's stay the course, part 2," said Hagel, an Army infantryman in Vietnam who earned two Purple Hearts, warning that some of his Republican colleagues running for re-election next year will soon face a "confrontation" between "a very unpopular war and self-preservation."
But opponents of the measure took heart in its defeat, saying it means that the American public is beginning to recognize that success on the ground in Iraq is due to the surge in troops President Bush ordered earlier this year.
"Congress doesn't have the votes to stop this strategy of success from going forward," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut.
The measure would have required that troops spend as much time at home as they spend in Iraq or Afghanistan. Members of the National Guard or Reserve would be guaranteed three years at home before being sent back. Most soldiers now spend about 15 months in combat and about 12 months at home before being redeployed.
Maryland's two senators, Democrats Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, voted for the measure. They both voted against the Republican alternative, which would have changed the guarantee to a goal.
Throughout the day, Webb, Hagel and other senators pleaded for the well-being of the troops.
"This amendment would provide a safety net to our men and women in uniform by providing minimum and more predictable time for them to rest and retrain before again deploying," said Webb, a Marine who was awarded the Navy Cross, the Silver Star Medal, two Bronze Star Medals and two Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam.
Success seemed within reach as one Republican after another said he or she was considering a yes vote. Seven Republicans voted for the amendment in July, and Democrats believed they needed just three more votes to win.
But Webb's hopes were dashed when Virginia's other senator, Republican John W. Warner, another former secretary of the Navy, said he would switch his vote and oppose the amendment. As a former chairman of the Armed Services Committee and an influential figure in the Senate, Warner's decision stopped other Republicans from joining Webb.
"I don't think there's any doubt that Senator Warner's change of position caused a lot of Republicans not to come our way," Webb said.
The split between the two Virginia senators, both former Marines from different generations and different wars, was clearly painful for both.
"I say to my good friend from Virginia, I agree with the principles that you've laid down in your amendment, but I regret to say that I've been convinced by those in the professional uniform that they cannot do it and do it in a way that wouldn't invoke further unfairness to other soldiers now serving in Iraq," Warner said.
Jill Zuckman writes for the Chicago Tribune.
Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.