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The Senate today concluded its most extensive debate on the war in Iraq since authorizing the use of force there more than three and a half years ago. Senate Democrats argued for two competing proposals aimed at redeploying U.S. Forces from Iraq. Both measures were soundly defeated.
NPR's David Welna reports from the Capitol.
DAVID WELNA: The debate centered on the most wrenching issue before the Senate and the nation, the costly and deadly ongoing deployment of U.S. forces in Iraq. John Warner, the Republican Chair of the Arms Services Committee, warned his colleagues to take care not to send signals that the nation might be losing its resolve in Iraq.
JOHN WARNER: Our credibility is on the line. So I say to my colleagues, as you approach this vote, it will be one of the most important that you have ever cast. Future generations of America will look back upon this very moment to determine how two branches of our government, the executive and the legislative, did they stand side by side in honoring those who've given their lives, the wounds, the million other men and women in the armed forces plus untold American citizens, who in the years of the Iraqi conflict have gone over and accepted the risk of serving there be they in the military or civilian capacity? It's a very heavy investment that's been made by many, many thousands of courageous Americans to see that we've gotten to where we are today.
WELNA: That brought a sharp response from the top Democrat on Warner's committee, Michigan's Carl Levin.
CARL LEVIN: Our credibility has been proven thousands of times and with billions of dollars.
WELNA: Levin is the cosponsor of a nonbinding amendment that Senate Democrats cobbled together over the past week. It calls on President Bush to begin a phased redeployment of U.S. forces by year's end and to offer a plan for further troop draw downs. Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed, who cosponsored Levin's measure, said Republicans have grotesquely mischaracterized what it's about.
JACK REED: This is not some arbitrary fixed timetable. This is not something where dates mean date specific. What we say very precisely is the president shall submit to the Congress a plan by the end of 2006 with estimated dates for the continued phased redeployment of the United States forces with the understanding that unexpected contingencies may arrive.
If my colleagues feel this is an arbitrary timetable, then they demonstrate a lack of confidence in the ability of the president, listening to his commanders in the field, to prepare an estimate of our posture in Iraq over the next several years.
WELNA: That amendment was really a response to another Democratic amendment that many Democrats felt went well beyond where they were willing to go. Cosponsored by Massachusetts's John Kerry, it calls for most U.S. forces to be out of Iraq by July of next year.
JOHN KERRY: We have exactly the same plan that is in the Levin amendment except that we go further. We maintain an over the horizon force in order to protect our security interest in the region. And in addition to that, we have a date and it's binding. I don't believe at this point in time that our troops are well served by only having a sense of the Senate resolution. I think we ought to make policy. We helped make policy to put them there. We ought to help make the policy that helps to get them out of there.
WELNA: Kerry's cosponsor, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, lamented the reluctance of many senators, including fellow Democrats, to set a date certain for troop pullout.
RUSS FEINGOLD: We understand that we're not going to get a majority here. We know we're not going to even get anywhere near a majority. But the senator and I know that we represent the view of the majority of the American people, which has clearly been demonstrated in every indication, whether it be conversations or polling or the town meetings that I hold in Wisconsin, that the people of this country know that we have to finish this Iraq mission, that it cannot be open-ended.
WELNA: Arizona Republican John McCain, who like both Kerry and Feingold is mulling a presidential run, made the most detailed case for opposing both amendments.
JOHN MCCAIN: By calling for a withdrawal of American Troops tied to arbitrary timetables rather than conditions in country, these amendments literally risk disaster for our intervention in Iraq. The Iraqi Security Forces my friends are clearly unable to maintain security on their own. All you have to do is look at every news story every morning or every evening.
Even with the presence of coalition forces in Iraq today, the violence and instability remain at unacceptably high levels. To abandon the fledgling Iraqi Army and police to the insurgents, the militias and the terrorists would risk chaos in Iraq and chaos in Iraq would mean disaster.
WELNA: Rather than playing defense over an unpopular war, Republicans, one after another, sought to put Democrats on the ropes by accusing them of letting the troops down and the American people. Majority Leader Bill Frist, another presidential hopeful, threw the final punch.
BILL FRIST: The brave men and women of our armed forces are fighting daily to win victory in Iraq and it would dishonor them, to say nothing of their fallen comrades, to cut and run at a time as promising as now. The spirit of these amendments is a spirit of defeatism and surrender. This is not the spirit that made America the great nation it is today. And I trust that when we vote, we will send the message that there is no room for defeatism in the United States.
WELNA: In the end, Kerry's date certain amendment garnered 13 votes with 86 opposed. Sixty senators voted against Levin's sense of the Senate amendment with 39 votes in favor. Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee, who faces a tough reelection, was the only Republican voting for it. Delaware Democrat Joseph Biden, also a presidential contender, joined backers of Levin's amendment after the vote to claim a moral victory.
JOSEPH BIDEN: We may have our divisions and we do, not this group particularly. But we do disagree with setting the times certain. There is some disagreement in the Democratic Party. The thing I'd like to remark to you all and point out, the Republicans are totally united in a failed policy.
WELNA: Both parties, in fact, took big chances today. Democrats by betting Americans will see them as pushing for success in Iraq. Republicans by betting their united show of resolve won't trigger a voter backlash come November.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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