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Senate panel passes war-funding bill — with call for Iraq deadline

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WASHINGTON — A Senate committee approved a $122 billion measure Thursday financing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but also defying President Bush by calling on him to pull combat troops out of Iraq by next spring.
    The bill, approved by a voice vote, is similar to one the House began debating Thursday. Both measures have drawn veto threats from the White House, which has said Congress must allow more time for the U.S. troop increase in Iraq to work.
    Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee had hoped to delete the withdrawal language. But facing likely defeat, they decided to postpone that effort until the full Senate takes up the spending measure, as early as Monday.
    ‘‘I don’t believe that we — from Washington — can judge the conditions on the battlefield,’’ said Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo.
    Democrats, who have been trying to figure out how to pressure Bush to wind down the war, said the withdrawal language was necessary to force the Iraqi government to take more responsibility. It would require U.S. troops to begin leaving Iraq within four months of passage, and would set a nonbinding goal of March 31, 2008, for the removal of combat troops.
    ‘‘I think the only way we can succeed in Iraq is by fundamentally changing the dynamic,’’ said Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who chairs the subcommittee that oversees military funding.
    The Senate bill includes about $96 billion for the Defense Department, primarily for the wars, and billions of dollars more in domestic assistance in a Democratic bid to attract more votes. Like its counterpart in the House, the bill would provide about $4 billion in agricultural assistance and $1.7 billion beyond the president’s request for military health programs.
    The Senate bill also would provide some $6.7 billion for hurricane relief.
    While the added money for popular state projects could make it tough for some members to reject, the White House swiftly condemned the Senate and House bills.
    The House’s $124 billion spending bill would require that combat troops leave Iraq by fall of 2008, and possibly sooner if the Iraqi government does not make progress on its political and security commitments. That chamber planned a vote for Friday.
    ‘‘Congress needs to get their business done quickly, get the monies we’ve requested funded and let our folks on the ground do the job,’’ Bush said after meeting with leaders of joint civilian-military units headed soon to Iraq.
    At a Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary Robert Gates pressed Congress to approve the war funds and ticked off a list of harmful consequences for the Army if the money is delayed.
    If it is not available by April 15, he said, the Army would have to consider curtailing and suspending training for National Guard and Reserve units as well as other cutbacks. If the money is not available by May 15 more stringent cuts would be required, he said, including delaying the training of combat brigades, which could force the Army to lengthen the combat tours of some units now in Iraq.
    In past budget standoffs with Congress, prior administrations have raised the threat of curtailed military activities — reductions that usually end up not actually occurring.
    Gates also said U.S. commanders in Iraq may find they need a relatively small number of extra troops beyond what is now planned, but ‘‘in terms of a significant additional number of combat troops, I don’t see that in the cards.’’
    Democrats are divided on the issue of requiring withdrawal and they hold only a narrow majority in Congress. Their leaders, hands tied if just a few members stray, are finding it tough to pass legislation that would require Bush to start bringing troops home.
    The stakes are high for Congress’ new Democratic leaders, who want to prove they can govern, influence Bush’s war policy and still support the military.
    Several anti-war liberals are expected to join Republicans in opposing the measure because they say it continues to bankroll an immoral war. And if the bill does scrape by in the House, it may sink in the Senate, where many Democrats have resisted firm timetables on the war.
    Both the House and Senate measures would allow an unspecified number of troops to be left behind to conduct anti-terror missions, train Iraqi forces and protect U.S. diplomatic personnel and infrastructure. Of the more than 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, less than half are combat forces.
    The Senate panel adopted several amendments to its bill, including one intended to improve safety of commercial traffic along the Mexico-U.S. border and another that would protect state chemical security laws from being overwritten by federal regulations.
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