Forget courting Republican votes on the war. Democrats have found a way to overcome President Bush's veto threats on their war spending plans: Not sending him the money in the first place.
Democrats plan to sit on Bush's $196 billion request for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan until next year. The delay will push the Pentagon toward an accounting nightmare and deepen Democrats' conflict with the White House on the war. But it also will keep them in lockstep with a support base that wants the troops out of Iraq.
Nearly a year after the anti-war voters put them in power, Democrats have been unable to pass veto-proof legislation ordering troops home.
"We're going to continue to do the right thing for the American people by having limited accountability for the president and not a blank check," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Senate Republicans on Friday blocked a $50 billion Democratic bill that would have paid for several months of combat but also would have ordered troop withdrawals from Iraq to begin within 30 days. The measure, which the House narrowly passed this week, also would have set a goal of ending combat in December 2008.
The 53-45 vote was seven votes short of the 60 needed to advance. It came minutes after the Senate rejected a Republican proposal to pay for the Iraq war with no strings attached.
Now, Democratic leaders say they won't send President Bush a war spending bill this year. They calculate the military has enough money to run through mid-February.
The delay will satisfy a Democratic support base that is fiercely anti-war. But it also will give Republicans and the White House ample time to hammer Democrats for leaving for the holidays without funding the troops.
"We ought to get the troops the funding they need to finish the mission without restrictions and without a surrender date," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
At the White House on Friday, deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said the spending gap is unjustified.
"We'd rather see the Department of Defense, the military planners and our troops focusing on military maneuvers rather than accounting maneuvers as they carry out their mission in the field," Fratto said.
Since taking the reins of Congress in January, Democrats have struggled to pass any significant anti-war legislation. Measures that passed along party lines in the House repeatedly sank in the Senate, where Democrats hold a much narrower majority and 60 votes are routinely needed to overcome procedural hurdles.
In May, Republicans agreed not to stand in the way of a $95 billion measure that would have set a timetable for troop withdrawals. Bush rejected the bill and Democrats lacked the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto, as Republicans anticipated.
Democrats eventually stripped the timetable from the bill and sent Bush the money without restrictions on force levels. The move was unpopular with many Democratic voters who say Congress should cut off money for the war.
As the year progressed, Democrats hoped for Republican defections. But a drop in violence in Iraq this fall helped to shore up GOP support for the war.
On Friday, only four Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the Iraq measure: Sens. Gordon Smith of Oregon, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
Sen. Christopher Dodd was the lone Democrat opposing it because he said it did not go far enough to end the war. Other Democrats, including Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, said they too opposed the bill as too soft but that they supported advancing debate.
"The only way to end the war is with a firm deadline that is enforceable through funding," said Dodd, D-Conn.
Democrats acknowledge recent progress made by the military in Iraq but contend the security will be short-lived unless the Iraqi government reaches a political settlement.
"We need to do more than say to the Iraqis that our patience has run out and that they need to seize the opportunity that has been given them," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee. "Their dawdling will only end when they have no choice."
Republicans on Friday tried to counter with an alternative proposal that would have paid $70 billion toward the war without restrictions. That measure failed by a vote of 45-53, falling 15 short of the 60 needed to advance.
Republicans said there were appalled by Sen. Chuck Schumer's comment, reported by The Associated Press on Thursday, that the Bush administration wouldn't get a "free lunch."
Schumer, D-N.Y., had told reporters that unless Bush accepted the restrictions, the Defense Department would have to eat into its core budget.
"The days of a free lunch are over," he said.
Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan said Schumer's comments were "unbelievable," and Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., said the senator should apologize to the troops.
"Sen. Schumer only wants to fund pay, body armor and chow for the troops if he can put conditions on the money so that they cannot do the mission they have been ordered to do," said Wilson.
The Pentagon confirms the military will not run out of money until mid-February, after which all Army bases would cease operations.
But Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this week that without the money now, drastic steps would have to be taken in anticipation of the shutdown, including plans to freeze contracts and to furlough about 100,000 government employees.
Notices to some union employees would start going out in mid-December, he said.
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Dems unable to pass bill to get troops home