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Senate Republicans Block Iraq Timetable


By Liz Sidoti, The Associated Press

Washington - The Republican-controlled Senate easily defeated a Democratic effort Tuesday to pressure President Bush to outline a timetable for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. It then overwhelmingly endorsed a weaker statement calling on the administration to explain its Iraq policy.

Senators also voted to endorse the Bush administration's military tribunals for prosecuting foreign terrorism suspects at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but to allow the detainees to appeal their detention status and punishments to a federal court.

On the question of a timetable for troop withdrawal, senators rejected the Democrats' proposal by 58-40. Democratic leaders had advanced the measure in the wake of declining public support for a conflict that has claimed more than 2,000 U.S. lives and cost more than $200 billion.

Republicans countered with their own nonbinding alternative that the Senate approved on a 79-19 vote. Five Democrats sided with the majority party.

Instead of calling for a withdrawal timetable, the GOP provision urged that 2006 "should be a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty," with Iraqi forces taking the lead in providing security to create the conditions for the phased redeployment of United States forces.

"They want an exit strategy, a cut-and-run exit strategy. What we are for is a successful strategy," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said: "We want to change the course. We can't stay the course."

Tuesday's fast-paced developments underscored the political significance of the war as the U.S. death toll climbs, public support plummets, the insurgency continues and the price tag soars with no end in sight.

The Senate added the Iraq policy to a defense bill the Senate approved on a 98-0 vote Tuesday.

Overall, the bill includes provisions that, taken together, mark an effort by the Senate to rein in some of the wide authority lawmakers gave the president following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The measure includes White House-opposed language that would prohibit the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees and standardize interrogation procedures used by U.S. troops. The Bush administration has threatened to veto any bill that includes language about the treatment of detainees, arguing it would limit the president's ability to prevent terrorist attacks.

Senators added the language Tuesday that would allow Guantanamo detainees to appeal their status as "enemy combatants" and the rulings of U.S. military tribunals to a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. That avenue would take the place of the one tool the Supreme Court gave detainees in 2004 to fight the legality of their detentions - the right to file habeas corpus petitions in any federal court.

Senators approved the measure on tribunals by an 84-14 vote. It was a bipartisan compromise reached after last week's Senate approval of a provision that stripped detainees entirely of their ability to file the petitions. Critics said that provision did not provide a meaningful way for detainees to appeal their status or the decisions of military tribunals.

Earlier Tuesday, senators defeated a Democratic proposal that would have reinstated the right to file habeas corpus lawsuits, but limited the challenges to one court.

Reflecting senators' anger over recent leaks of classified information to the public, the bill also includes provisions requiring the Bush administration to provide Congress with details on purportedly secret CIA prisons overseas and stripping of security clearances of any federal government official who knowingly discloses national security secrets.

The House version of the defense bill doesn't include those provisions, nor does it include the language on the detention, interrogation or prosecution of detainees. As a result, it's unclear whether any of those provisions will survive House and Senate negotiations and actually end up in the final defense bill.

However, House GOP leaders will be under pressure to adopt parts of the Senate bill, particularly the statement of U.S. policy in Iraq. That's because public support for the war has fallen and lawmakers are feeling the heat from frustrated constituents heading into a congressional election year in which a third of the Senate and all House members are up for re-election.

The Senate-approved Iraq policy calls for - but does not require - the Bush administration to "explain to Congress and the American people its strategy for the successful completion of the mission in Iraq" and to provide reports on U.S. foreign policy and military operations in Iraq every three months until all U.S. combat brigades have been withdrawn.

The policy calls 2006 a transition year in which Iraqi forces take over security of their country from U.S. forces to a far greater extent so the Americans can begin returning home.

Republicans largely adopted the Democratic proposal as their own, but they omitted one paragraph calling for the president to offer a plan for a phased withdrawal of the roughly 160,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq. The administration has refused to set a timetable for withdrawal, saying insurgents simply would wait to strike until after U.S. forces departed.

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