Senate Debates Pulling U.S. Troops from Iraq

Divisions among Democrats take center stage as the Senate debates two Iraq amendments to the defense bill. One, from Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), calls for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by a certain date. A competing amendment, also from the Democrats, is an open-ended call for the withdrawal of troops. Republicans stand largely united against the amendments.

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The Senate is voting, in this hour, on two hotly-debated amendments to an annual military bill. Both call for draw-downs of U.S. forces in Iraq. Neither measure is expected to pass. But with key midterm elections just five months away, both sides consider this debate as a run-up to what could become a national referendum on an unpopular war.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, who's the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is sponsoring the more moderate of the two amendments. It calls for redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq to begin by the end of the year. Levin says it's now all up to the Iraqis.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan; Senate Armed Services Committee): They must make a choice: do they want a nation or do they want civil war. And to maintain this open-ended commitment, which we now have, is contributing to a dependency of the Iraqis on us, rather than forcing them, prodding them, to do what only they can do to build a nation.

WELNA: Backing Levin's nonbinding amendment was the Senate's number two Democrat Dick Durbin, who declared Iraq's had enough help from the U.S.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): We're told they have 260,000 soldiers and police prepared to defend their own country, ready to fight. You know when I'll believe that? When the first American soldier comes home, replaced by an Iraqi soldier; that hasn't happened yet.

WELNA: But Durbin's also backing the other Democratic amendment, sponsored by Wisconsin's Russ Feingold and Massachusetts' John Kerry. Far fewer Democrats support this measure with specific deadline for a troop pullout, one year from now. Kerry claimed last night, that his proposal is in sync with the top U.S. military commander in Iraq.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): General Casey himself has said that the large presence of American troops is lending to the sense of occupation and it is delaying the willingness of Iraqis to stand up.

WELNA: But Armed Services Chairman John Warner gave a thumbs-down to both amendments.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia; Chairman, Senate Armed Services Committee): An arbitrary deadline or timetable would have been a serious, strategic error and historic mistake. Withdrawing our forces prior to the Iraqis being able to defend themselves, would encourage terrorism, embolden al-Qaida, and threaten American security.

WELNA: And Texas Republican, John Cornyn, painted the Democrat's proposal as sellouts.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): Are we going to base our military strategy in Iraq on an arbitrary timetable for withdrawal, based upon defeatism; a policy of retreat; a policy of appeasement; a policy of surrender.

WELNA: New York Democrat, Hillary Clinton, portrayed that Republican opposition as purely political.

Senator HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (Democrat, New York): They choose to tar all who disagree with an open-ended, unconditional commitment, as unpatriotic; as waving the white flag of surrender. They may not have a war strategy, but they do have an election strategy.

WELNA: Indeed, Republican Mitch McConnell, claimed his united party has the upper hand.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): We're going to vote on the dartboard date, and then we're going to vote on cut and jog. But Republicans are largely unified. You will notice that we have not offered an alternative. We feel very confident in having this debate.

WELNA: But despite their divisions, Democrats say both their amendments are responsive to public opinion. Polls show a majority of Americans now want the troops to come home.

David Welna, NPR News.

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