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Senate at an Impasse on Iraq Withdrawal

September 21, 2007 at 6:05 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And the war debate goes on. NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has our report.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Majority Leader: So I ask my Republican colleagues for the courage and wisdom to join the American people and bring our troops home.

KWAME HOLMAN: Senate Democrats believed this would be the week they finally reversed the course of the Iraq war, but by week’s end, it actually appeared they had lost momentum.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), Michigan: You’ve got to have a timetable. And if it’s not in law, then at least it ought to be a goal. And that’s our goal, and we’re not going to be discouraged.

KWAME HOLMAN: The much-anticipated progress report on the U.S. military surge in Iraq, delivered to the Congress last week by General David Petraeus, ended with his recommendation to stay the course, at least for another six months.

Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin and Majority Leader Harry Reid hoped enough Republicans wouldn’t buy the extension and this week scheduled votes on several amendments to a Defense Department bill, each designed to bring the troops home sooner. But Republican Leader Mitch McConnell had set the bar high, agreeing not to filibuster the amendments, but insisting that 60 votes be needed for any of them to pass.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: The challenge before us is to get to the 60 votes.

Sen. Jim Webb's amendment

KWAME HOLMAN: And Democrats' best chance, they believed, came Wednesday, on an amendment by Virginia's Jim Webb requiring U.S. troops to be given as much time at home as they spend in Iraq or Afghanistan.

SEN. JAMES WEBB (D), Virginia: We are asking our men and women in uniform to bear a disproportionate sacrifice as the result of these multiple extended combat deployments with inadequate time at home. We owe them greater predictability.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Webb attracted only 56 votes, even losing the previous support of fellow Virginian Republican John Warner.

SEN. JOHN WARNER (R), Virginia: So I, in no way, in any way, denigrate what Senator Webb is trying to do. It's just that we have an honest difference of opinion, and mine based on basically the same facts that have been given to him. He has a different analysis than do I.

KWAME HOLMAN: The vote on Webb signaled doom for an even longer-shot amendment offered yesterday by Wisconsin's Russ Feingold that would have cut off funding for combat missions in Iraq by June 30th.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), Wisconsin: Now, once again, it is up to us here in Congress to reverse this president's intractable policy, to listen to the American people, to save American lives, and to protect our nation's security by redeploying our troops from Iraq. We have the power and the responsibility to act, and we must act now.

Opposing Senator Feingold

KWAME HOLMAN: Arizona Republican John McCain partnered with Feingold long ago on campaign finance reform legislation, but not on this issue.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: Madam President, I rise to oppose the amendment offered by my good friend from Wisconsin, and I would prefer to be discussing other reform issues with him than this one, but this is an important amendment, and we must not send our country down this disastrous course. All of us all of us want our troops to come home, and to come home as soon as possible, but we should want our soldiers to return to us with honor, the honor of victory that is due all of those who have paid with the ultimate sacrifice.

Pulling troops out of Iraq

KWAME HOLMAN: Seventy senators sided with John McCain, only 28 with Russ Feingold, one less vote than Feingold was able to muster on a similar attempt back in May.

By this morning, Senator Levin could only hope for a better showing for his amendment, one mandating combat troop withdrawals begin within 90 days and be completed within nine months.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), Michigan: The president has a dozen times said the American people need to be patient. It's the opposite message which has a chance of working to the Iraqi leaders, that we are mighty impatient here in America. We're impatient with the dawdling of the political leaders in Iraq who are the only ones that can achieve a political settlement. We cannot impose that on them; only they can reach it.

KWAME HOLMAN: South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham argued that the opposite was true.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), South Carolina: There is no evidence to suggest that reconciliation would be enhanced by rejecting Petraeus and adopting the Congress's plan for Iraq, quite the opposite. I think all of the evidence we have before us is that a smaller military footprint, where you're training and fighting behind walls, empowers the enemy. If we adopted this resolution, the security gains we've achieved, I believe, would be lost.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate split 47-47 on that argument, defeating the Levin amendment. Levin says he'll consider removing the mandates in his amendment in favor of goals, in hopes of rounding up more Republican votes next week.