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Iraq Debate in Senate Turns Emotional

by Kate Zernike and Carl HulseThe New York Times
June 20th, 2006

WASHINGTON, June 20 The Senate's debate over the war in Iraq turned highly emotional this afternoon, as the lawmakers reacted to reports of the killing of two American soldiers by adopting two measures opposing amnesty for Iraqis who attack United States troops.

By a vote of 79 to 19, the Senate voted to declare that it objects to any such amnesty. By 64 to 34, the lawmakers voted to commend the new Iraqi government for not granting amnesty.

Though they are deeply divided over what America should do in Iraq and how to get out, senators from both parties expressed anger and revulsion over reports that the two American soldiers who were abducted last week had been found tortured and killed.

Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, voiced outrage over reports of "the tragedy that has been revealed," pointing to note initial reports that the two bodies had apparently been "mutilated and boobytrapped." Mr. Nelson was the author of the measure declaring the Senate's opposition to amnesty, while Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the second-ranking Republican in the chamber, sponsored the measure commending the Iraqi government.

Senator John W. Warner, the Virginia Republican who heads the Armed Services Committee, said the "mutilation of these two brave American soldiers" was yet another example of the "ferocity" of the conflict. But he said the lawmakers needed to be careful not to appear to "dictate" to the new Baghdad leadership.

Before the voting on the Nelson and McConnell measures, which took the form of amendments to a military spending bill, some senators expressed doubts over just what the Iraqi government had said about amnesty; those doubts may have been a factor in the 34 "no" votes that were cast. And political maneuvering may have been a factor as well: the 34 "no" votes on the McConnell measure were all cast by Democrats, while the 19 "no" votes on Mr. Nelson's proposal were from Republicans.

Late this afternoon, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, offered an amendment that would raise the minimum wage from the present $5.15 an hour to $7.25 in stages. The senator said a minimum-wage proposal was an entirely appropriate item in a debate about Iraq, since many of the Americans fighting there are from families who would benefit most.

Earlier today, Republicans defeated a Democratic proposal for an investigation into waste and fraud in military contracts. The proposal, made by Senator Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota, called for a panel like the one led by Harry Truman when he was a Senator, which uncovered many abuses in military spending during World War II. It failed by a 52-to-44 vote.

Mr. Dorgan said that military spending is the worst it has ever been "right now right now! I think the American taxpayers are being fleeced."

He offered several anecdotes, including one about 25 tons of nails that he said had been buried in the sand simply because "someone ordered the wrong-sized nails," adding, "It doesn't matter the American taxpayer is going to pay the bill."

The senator focused on Halliburton, the huge company once headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, which has become a favorite target of Democrats alleging favoritism and waste in the awarding of Pentagon contracts in Iraq. But Mr. Dorgan said there was plenty of blame on both sides of the aisle. Supervision of military spending, he said, is "the one area where all of us have failed."

In urging defeat of Mr. Dorgan's proposal, also offered as an amendment to the military spending bill, Mr. Warner said that supposed abuses like those cited by the Democrat could be investigated by the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, by various inspectors general or by the Government Accountability Office, without setting up a Truman-style panel.

The vote on the Dorgan amendment followed party lines almost exactly, with Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island the only Republican to vote yes; no Democrat voted against it.

Before the vote, Republicans tried to deflate Democratic attempts to turn a harsh spotlight on the conduct of the entire war. Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona declared, "The strategy there needs to be to win, not withdraw. Withdrawal follows victory."

Setting up the Senate debate over the war, leading Democrats fashioned a non-binding proposal calling for American troops to begin pulling out of Iraq this year. They avoided setting a firm timetable for withdrawal, but they argued that the Bush administration's open-ended commitment to the war would only prevent Iraqis from moving forward on their own.

Coming the week after a partisan and often angry House debate over the war, the Senate proposal was carefully worded in the hope of deflecting accusations that the Democrats favored "cutting and running," as their position has been depicted by Republicans. The Democrats behind the measure did not even use the term "withdrawal," and talked about how to guarantee "success" for Iraq, not about any failures of the war.

"The administration's policy to date that we'll be there for as long as Iraq needs us will result in Iraq's depending upon us longer," Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said on Monday. Mr. Levin has been designated by the Democratic leadership to present the party's strategy on Iraq. "Three and a half years into the conflict, we should tell the Iraqis that the American security blanket is not permanent," he said.

The resolution was cobbled together by moderate Democrats trying to smooth over differences within the party. The minority leadership has tried to distance itself from a proposal by Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts that would set a mandatory deadline for American combat troops to be out of Iraq, a limit that Mr. Kerry modified only marginally on Monday, pushing it back from Dec. 31, 2006 to July 2007.

Some Republican lawmakers and the White House pointed to that proposal last week in attacking Democrats as inconsistent and weak on national security.

Mr. Levin's resolution did nothing to stop the Republicans' ridicule, with Mr. McConnell dismissing it in a Fox News interview as "cut and jog."

"The last thing you want to do when you have the terrorists on the run is give them notice that you're going to leave," he said.

President Bush spoke similarly at a Republican fund-raiser here Monday night. "An early withdrawal would embolden the terrorists an early withdrawal would embolden Al Qaeda and bin Laden," Mr. Bush said. "There will be no early withdrawal so long as we run the Congress and occupy the White House."

The Democrats said their resolution, which will be debated this week as an amendment to a military policy bill, built on one that the Senate adopted last year with wide support from Republicans, pledging that 2006 would be a year of "significant transition" toward an independent Iraq. Democrats said they hoped for some Republican backing for the latest one.

But Senator Warner, who as chairman of the Armed Services Committee was crucial to the adoption of last year's resolution, did not stand with the new proposal Monday.

"In this form, I could not support it," said Mr. Warner.

Republicans said they were still exploring how to respond to the Democrats' latest approach. They are sensitive to the needs of senators in tough races, and therefore may bring an amendment of their own to express support for the troops in Iraq, giving those senators a chance to cast a vote backing a resolution instead of simply fighting one.

Such an amendment was the essence of the measure that House Republicans proposed last week, on which they prevailed.

But Senate Republicans also said they were inclined to debate the Democratic resolution head on. So, in contrast to the more predictable House debate, the Senate showdown could bring a more serious exchange of views on how best to deal with the war.

In any event, the resolution failed to satisfy Mr. Kerry. Late last week he said he was withholding his amendment in hopes that Democrats could find a "broad consensus." But on Monday he altered his proposal merely to change the deadline date.

The Levin amendment would leave some American troops in place to work on counterterrorism and the training of Iraqi security forces. But it calls for other troops to begin moving out of Iraq by the end of this year, and for the president to submit a plan to Congress by then outlining preparations for further redeployment. Mindful of accusations that they are trying to micromanage a war from half a world away, the Democrats said they wanted to leave the "speed and pace" of the withdrawal to military commanders.

"This amendment is not 'cut and run,' " said Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a Democrat who joined Mr. Levin in proposing it. "This is not about a date certain. This is about getting the president to do the job correctly, something he has failed to do for the last three years and three months."

The resolution calls for an international conference to determine ways to secure Iraq and the region, and outlines what the Democrats said the Iraqis needed to do to take charge of their country: sharing political power and economic resources among different groups, disarming the militias and rooting out disloyal members of security forces.

"As long as we're there to do this heavy lifting," Mr. Reed said, "even though they want to do it themselves, they won't do it."