Senate Approves Iraq Withdrawal Timetable

Defying a veto threat from President Bush, Senate Democrats on Thursday voted for a $122 billion spending bill that would set a timetable for withdrawing combat troops from Iraq, beginning this summer.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And we're going now to NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. Ron, welcome back to the show.

RON ELVING: Good to be with you, Alex.

CHADWICK: You're here to talk about this vote in the Senate today. This is setting a - both a budget figure and a deadline for troops in Iraq. But let me just ask you about this development today with Mr. Gonzales former aide. What does this say to you about the prospects for the attorney general?

ELVING: It becomes extremely difficult for the attorney general to hold on if the slender reed he had of credibility left after the last several months is further weakened by what his former chief of staff is saying. And it's hard to see how it could be any other way.

CHADWICK: Okay, the measure that we're speaking about in the Senate - this is the vote to set a timetable for withdrawing American troops from Iraq - it passed 51-47, despite the president's veto threat. It provides a $122 billion for fighting both in Iraq and Afghanistan, also domestic programs in there. This is the bill that locks in a battle, doesn't it, with the president over the U.S. mission in Iraq?

ELVING: It does indeed, and that's really what it's designed to do. The House and the Senate, now under Democratic control, feel driven by the results of the elections in November, also feel driven by the results of polls that they're looking at that show roughly three in five Americans want to have some sort of timetable for a withdrawal. And they feel ready for this fight with the president.

CHADWICK: It is largely, you know, a partisan divide here. Two Republicans, I think, voted for this bill. Is that correct?

ELVING: The key element of it, the timetable element, was supported by Gordon Smith of Oregon and by Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Those were the only two Republicans.

CHADWICK: So there is the House bill as well, and what are the differences here and how they're going to iron these out?

ELVING: The big difference is in the nature of the timetable. The House has a binding timetable deadline of August 31st next year. The Senate wants the troops - the combat troops to be out by March 31st next year, just a year from this weekend, but their language is less binding. On the other hand, the Senate also wants to see the withdrawal begin sooner, as soon as this summer, within 120 days.

So these are not terribly different approaches, but the binding effort, the binding essence is going to be the sticking point, I think, in negotiations between the House and Senate. I expect they'll work it out.

CHADWICK: The president has been clear in saying he would veto this, but you hear and read about all this kind of a disquietude among Republicans because political polls do show the war is so unpopular. Is there some prospect, do you think, that the White House might be willing to negotiate its way out of this?

ELVING: If there's any willingness to do that, it has not been apparent. There is a chance that they'll negotiate something with respect to the showdown over Attorney General Gonzales. I think there is some glimmer of light on that horizon. But here you had the president this morning having with him at the White House a big photo-op outdoors nearly the entire House Republican conference, 200 members.

And they stood out there very much in a kind of a show of strength and a rally atmosphere and saying we're going to stand against the Democrats' attempts to put a timetable on our involvement in Iraq. We have to stand foursquare and 100 percent with the commanders in the field and so on and the rest of the argument. The president does not show any sign of backing down.

CHADWICK: NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving with us from Washington. Again, Ron, thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Alex.

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