"We're going to keep at it, and at least it's my belief that they're going to have to break," said New York Senator Charles Schumer, a key Democratic strategist, recently. "It's not going to prevail on one (Senate) vote, or two, but it will after five, six, seven."
Already, Democratic leaders have indicated that if, as expected, Bush vetoes the bill, they will send him another that will fund the war for only two months, thus forcing the administration to return to Congress no later than July for yet another battle. A two-thirds vote in each house is needed to override a presidential veto.
Thursday's 51-46 vote came in the wake of the House of Representatives' approval by a 218-208 margin of an identical bill Wednesday. The bill will likely be sent to the White House on Monday, not coincidentally on the eve of the fourth anniversary of Bush's ill-fated "Mission Accomplished" speech on the decks of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier where he declared the end of major combat in Iraq.
The 124-billion-dollar measure, an emergency supplemental appropriation that would provide nearly 100 billion dollars to the administration to prosecute the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through the end of the 2007 fiscal year, Sep. 30, represented a compromise between different versions of the bill approved by the House and Senate late last month.
The new bill, which Bush has vowed to veto, requires the administration to begin redeploying U.S. troops from Iraq by Jul. 1 with a goal of completing the withdrawal of combat forces by the end of the year.
If, however, Bush determines that the Iraqi government has met certain benchmarks designed to measure progress towards national reconciliation -- such as amending the constitution that would give the minority Sunni population a stronger voice and enacting legislation that would ensure an equitable sharing of oil revenues -- the bill would permit him to put off the beginning withdrawal until Oct. 1, with a goal of completing withdrawal by Apr. 1, 2008.
Under the bill, some of the 175,000 U.S. troops who are expected to be deployed to Iraq by Jul. 1 under Bush's two-month-old "surge strategy" would remain in the country to train and equip Iraqi forces; engage in specific operations against terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda in Iraq; and protect U.S. personnel and facilities there.
The bill's passage was hailed by anti-war activists as a major milestone. "Congress has just approved the first legislation requiring a withdrawal from Iraq," said Jim Cason of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobbying group. "This is a huge step forward in the process of getting the U.S. out of Iraq."
Both the timetable and the benchmarks are based largely on the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG), co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former House Representative Lee Hamilton.
The ISG, which released its report last December, also called on the Bush administration to engage Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, as part of a broader diplomatic offensive designed to further the national reconciliation process in Iraq and ensure that the violence there did not destabilise the region.
While the administration has tentatively -- if grudgingly -- moved toward a broader diplomatic engagement and also endorsed the idea of benchmarks designed to advance national reconciliation, it has strongly opposed any timetable for withdrawal, calling any such plan "defeatist" and "surrender."
Indeed, in early January, Bush announced that he intended to add some 30,000 U.S. troops to the 140,000 who were already in Iraq at the time in order to stabilise Baghdad and regain control over al-Anbar province. The so-called surge, which is being overseen by the new U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, was formally launched in early February and is supposed to be completed in June.
The surge, however, galvanized the Democrats who, empowered by their sweep of the mid-term elections for Congress last November, decided to forcefully challenge what they called Bush's plans to "escalate" U.S. intervention in Iraq.
Backed by public opinion polls that showed growing disillusionment with the Iraq war and Bush's leadership in particular, Democrats won a key vote in the House in February on a non-binding resolution formally disapproving the surge.
After a vote on a similar resolution was stalled by administration loyalists in the Senate, the Democratic leadership focused its efforts at changing U.S. policy by adding conditions to the pending emergency spending bill that was submitted by the administration to maintain funding for the war.
When those conditions were approved by both houses last month, it was clear that a major confrontation with the White House was inevitable.
In recent weeks, the administration and its supporters in Congress and the media have argued strenuously that the troop surge, under Petraeus' leadership, was indeed working -- that the added U.S. troop presence in Baghdad had reduced sectarian violence there and that many Sunni tribes in al-Anbar province had begun cooperating with U.S. and Iraqi government forces against the more radical Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda.
"(W)e seem to be turning a corner," wrote Frederick Kagan, a fellow at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute, which has spearheaded efforts to rally support for the troop surge, in the current Weekly Standard magazine. "In December 2006, we were losing, and most of the trends were bad. ...Today, victory is up for grabs..."
But Democrats have argued that the surge has resulted mainly in moving the violence outside Baghdad and that, in any event, virtually no progress has been made on political reconciliation, which Petraeus himself, as well as his boss, Pentagon chief Robert Gates, have insisted is indispensable for eventual success. Defense Secretary Gates has noted several times in the past few weeks that pressure exerted by Democrats was helpful in conveying to the Iraqis that the U.S. patience is not unlimited.
The Democrats have been encouraged as well by recent polls that, despite the administration's efforts to paint the troop surge as a turning point in Iraq, indicate the public remains deeply skeptical about both Bush and the strategy. An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released this week showed that nearly half of respondents believe the situation in Iraq has actually gotten worse over the last three months, compared to only 12 percent who said they believed the situation had improved.
The same poll, like others taken earlier this month, also found majority support (55 percent) for the Democratic plan to set a withdrawal deadline, compared to around 37 percent who took Bush's position against any deadline.
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