WASHINGTON - The US Senate today defied a veto threat by President George W. Bush and joined with the House of Representatives in backing a timetable for withdrawing American combat troops from Iraq.
In a mostly party-line 51-47 vote, the Democratic-controlled Senate told Bush to start withdrawing the troops this year with the goal of getting all combat soldiers out by March 31, 2008.
"The ball is in the president's court. We have done what we needed to do" by passing a bill with even more money for the troops and veterans than Bush requested, said House Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
Democrats took control of Congress in January, after elections that largely focused on Republicans' handling of a war that has now claimed more than 3,200 American lives and at least 65,000 Iraqi soldiers and civilians.
The Senate vote marked progress for anti-war Democrats, who just two weeks ago mustered only 48 votes in a failed attempt to set identical deadlines.
Bush has argued that setting a deadline encourages the enemy to wait it out and hurts military commanders' flexibility. He has promised to veto any legislation that sets withdrawal timetables, which Democrats have attached to about $100 billion in war funds for the next six months.
Now, House and Senate negotiators will try to work out a compromise from their two bills. Their most notable difference is that the House bill contains a mandatory September 1, 2008, deadline for redeploying combat troops. The Senate's shorter timetable is a goal, not a requirement on Bush and is designed to win the support of centrist Democrats.
The House bill also requires Bush to certify that troops are properly trained, equipped and rested before being sent into combat. Democrats insist they are enforcing existing standards at a time when the military is stressed after four years of fighting. Republicans accuse them of trying to micromanage and choke off the war.
Democrats' moves to end the war through legislation kicked off another round of accusations from the White House and Congress over which would be to blame if money is not quickly delivered to the troops.
Speaking to reporters after meeting with House Republican leaders, Bush said, "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; and we got commanders making tough decisions on the ground, we expect there to be no strings on our commanders."
Reid countered that Democrats were following through on voters' demands last November for better oversight of the war. He said if Bush vetoes whatever compromise the House and Senate craft, "I don't know if you can find any president who has done more to undermine the troops."
The House and Senate hope to negotiate a compromise bill by the week of April 16 and quickly pass it and send it on to Bush for what Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called an "inevitable veto."
Lawmakers could make a gesture to Bush if they delete some of the billions of dollars for domestic projects, unrelated to the war, that he has criticized.
The Senate sent such a message to the House on Thursday, when it voted 96-1 against spending $25 million to help spinach producers who earlier this year suffered losses.
If Bush does veto the bill, Democrats are not expected to have the two-thirds support in the House and Senate to overturn him.
As a result, Congress quickly would have to come up with a new war-spending bill, with Democrats in a high-stakes gamble over whether to send Bush another bill with conditions on the duration of US troops fighting in Iraq.