WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats ignored a veto threat and pushed through a bill Thursday requiring President Bush to start withdrawing troops from "the civil war in Iraq," dealing a rare, sharp rebuke to a wartime commander in chief.
In a mostly party line 51-47 vote, the Senate signed off on a bill providing $123 billion to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also orders Bush to begin withdrawing troops within 120 days of passage while setting a nonbinding goal of ending combat operations by March 31, 2008.
The vote came shortly after Bush invited all House Republicans to the White House to appear with him in a sort of pep rally to bolster his position in the continuing war policy fight.
"We stand united in saying loud and clear that when we've got a troop in harm's way, we expect that troop to be fully funded," Bush said, surrounded by Republicans on the North Portico, "and we got commanders making tough decisions on the ground, we expect there to be no strings on our commanders."
"We expect the Congress to be wise about how they spend the people's money," he said.
The Senate vote marked its boldest challenge yet to the administration's handling of a war, now in its fifth year, that has cost the lives of more than 3,200 American troops and more than $350 billion.
"We have fulfilled our constitutional responsibilities," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters shortly after the vote.
If Bush "doesn't sign the bill, it's his responsibility," Reid added.
In a show of support for the president, most Republicans opposed the measure, unwilling to back a troop withdrawal schedule despite the conflict's widespread unpopularity.
"Surely this will embolden the enemy and it will not help our troops in any way," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
While Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that setting timelines for withdrawal would hamper U.S. commanders in Iraq, he said Thursday that the debate on Capitol Hill has "been helpful in bringing pressure to bear" on the Iraqi government. He said it has made it clear to the Iraqis that "there is a very real limit to Americans' patience."
Gates also said he was disturbed to hear one of his military officers say it will be fall before they have a good idea how well the latest Baghdad campaign is going. He said he hopes that Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, will be able to make that evaluation by summer.
Forty-eight Democrats and independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont were joined by two Republicans, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon Smith of Oregon, in voting for the measure. Opposed were 46 Republicans and Connecticut independent Joseph Lieberman.
Sens. Mike Enzi, R-Wy., and Tim Johnson, D-S.D., did not vote.
The House, also run by Democrats, narrowly passed similar legislation last week. Party leaders seem determined that the final bill negotiated between the two chambers will demand some sort of timetable for winding down the war - setting them on course for a veto showdown with the president.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the president respects the role of Congress - and Congress should respect his.
"I think the founders of our nation had great foresight in realizing that it would be better to have one commander in chief managing a war, rather than 535 generals on Capitol Hill trying to do the same thing," she said. "They're mandating failure here."
The legislation represents the Senate's first, bold challenge of Bush's war policies since Democrats took control of Congress in January. With Senate rules allowing the minority party to insist on 60 votes to pass any bill and Democrats holding only a narrow majority, Reid previously had been unable to push through resolutions critical of the war.
This latest proposal was able to get through because Republicans said they didn't want to block an appropriations bill needed for the war.
"I think the sooner we can get this bill ... down to the president for veto, we can get serious about passing a bill that will get money to the troops," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Democrats acknowledge they do not have enough support in Congress to override Bush's veto, but say they will continue to ratchet up the pressure until he changes course.
The looming showdown was reminiscent of the GOP-led fight with President Clinton over the 1996 budget, which caused a partial government shutdown that lasted 27 days. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., the House speaker at the time, eventually relented but claimed victory because the bill represented a substantial savings over the previous year's spending.
Bush said the money is needed by mid-April or else the troops will begin to run out of money, but some Democrats say the real deadline is probably closer to June.
Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Defense Appropriations Committee Thursday that a delay in funding would have a chain reaction that could keep units in Iraq longer than planned.
If the bill is not passed by May 15, he said the Army will have to cut back on reserve training and equipment repairs, and possibly delay the formation of other Army units needed to relieve those deployed.
Shortly before the final vote, the Senate agreed 98-0 to add $1.5 billion for mine-resistant vehicles for Marines, and 93-0 to aid a program to track down convicted sex offenders.
Members also agreed 96-1 to prohibit funds in the bill to be used for spinach farmers. The vote was orchestrated by Republicans to target some of the extra spending added to the bill by Democrats; while the Senate bill didn't include any funding for spinach growers, the House measure contained $25 million.