Webb’s Iraq bill inches closer to 60

Four new Senate Republicans signaled Tuesday that they may vote for a Democratic amendment aimed at giving U.S. troops in Iraq more time at home between deployments, helping Democrats inch closer to a rare victory on the conduct of the Iraq war.

The talks came amid tense backroom negotiations over the terms of the Iraq debate in the Senate, which is expected to dominate the floor schedule during the next two weeks. Democrats suggested that they would not soften an Iraq troop-withdrawal amendment and Senate leaders signaled that some compromise measures being negotiated by centrists from both parties likely would not come to the floor for a vote.

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Democratic leaders, recognizing they lack the votes to secure binding timelines for withdrawing troops from Iraq, are making the amendment by freshman Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) the centerpiece of this week’s efforts to force a change in the course of the war. The amendment, which would require that troops stay at home for the same length of time as their tours in Iraq, failed in July by a 56-41 vote.

But since then, Sen. Tim JohnsonTimothy (Tim) Peter JohnsonTrump faces tough path to Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac overhaul Several hurt when truck runs into minimum wage protesters in Michigan Senate GOP rejects Trump’s call to go big on gun legislation MORE (D-S.D.) has returned to the chamber after missing the first eight months of the 110th Congress due to a brain injury. Now four new Republicans may reverse course and are gauging the impact the Webb amendment would have on the war. Winning at least three of those Republicans over could give the Democrats the 60 votes they need to send the measure to a conference committee with the House.

 “I’d like to find reasonable ways to limit some in a volunteer army on how long our military men and women are expected to serve, but I don’t want to vote for something that will become a backdoor deadline,” said Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderDemocrats hit Scalia over LGBTQ rights Here are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 EXCLUSIVE: Swing-state voters oppose 'surprise' medical bill legislation, Trump pollster warns MORE (R-Tenn.), who added he was “studying” the Webb amendment to determine whether it could win his support this time around.

The other three Republicans — Sens. George Voinovich of Ohio, Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiOvernight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Walmart to stop selling e-cigarettes | Senators press FDA to pull most e-cigarettes immediately | House panel tees up e-cig hearing for next week Bipartisan group of senators urges FDA to pull most e-cigarettes immediately Sinema touts bipartisan record as Arizona Democrats plan censure vote MORE of Alaska and Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina — all said Tuesday they were considering whether to reverse course and support the measure.

“I’m seriously looking at it,” Murkowski said.

Voinovich, who floated what he called a compromise Iraq measure Tuesday, said he was looking at the impact the Webb amendment would have. “That’s been a bitter complaint I heard all of August,” he said of troops being stretched thin and not having enough time at home.

But just as those Republicans signaled they might vote for the measure, some obstacles emerged. The senior Republican from Virginia, John Warner, would not commit to voting for the measure, as he did in July.

“Time will tell,” he said when asked whether he would vote for the Webb amendment again.

Senate Republican leaders are leaning hard on their conference to vote against the Webb amendment, and Republican Party General Chairman Mel Martinez of Florida predicted the measure could lose Republican support this time around.

At a closed-door luncheon meeting Tuesday, Senate Republicans discussed drafting an alternative, non-binding “Sense of the Senate” resolution stating that the Senate recognizes that the burden is very heavy on troops but supporting the troop rotations set by the Pentagon, senators said. Republicans hope floating that proposal would prevent defections by allowing their conference to go on record recognizing the challenges facing troops in Iraq.

Even as Democrats argued that the Webb plan would help military families and give much-needed rest to a depleted military, Republicans were calling the measure “unconstitutional,” saying Congress has no role in setting the length of troop deployment schedules. GOP leaders argued that the measure would micromanage the Pentagon and serve as a backdoor attempt to get out of Iraq.

“I think [the Webb amendment] would be catastrophic,” said Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainAmerica's newest comedy troupe: House GOP Michelle Malkin knocks Cokie Roberts shortly after her death: 'One of the first guilty culprits of fake news' Arizona Democratic Party will hold vote to censure Sinema MORE (R-Ariz.), the presidential hopeful and ranking member on the Armed Services Committee.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed similar concerns, and said he would recommend President Bush veto any legislation that includes the Webb amendment.

But Democratic aides say they are working on allaying some of Gates’s concerns, including the secretary’s feeling that the measure would be difficult to implement. A new version of the Webb amendment includes language that would give the Pentagon 120 days after enactment to implement the plan, rather than require the program to go into effect immediately, an aide said.

A Pentagon spokesman would not comment on whether adding that new language would assuage Gates’s concerns.
The two parties are trying to reach agreement on a finite number of Iraq amendments that may be offered to the Defense Department authorization bill or as stand-alone measures. Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidBarr fails to persuade Cruz on expanded background checks Harry Reid warns Trump 'can be reelected' Homeland Security Republican accuses Navy of withholding UFO info MORE (D-Nev.) signaled that after action on the Webb amendment, the Senate would move to consider a measure he co-sponsored with Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin calling on troops to be redeployed by next June, except for those dealing with counterterrorism operations.

Another measure that will come up, Reid said, would be one by Democratic presidential hopeful Joseph Biden of Delaware to partition Iraq into its three rival ethnic factions with a decentralized federal government. Reid also indicated the Senate would vote on an amendment by Sens. Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinStrange bedfellows oppose the filibuster Listen, learn and lead: Congressional newcomers should leave the extremist tactics at home House Democrats poised to set a dangerous precedent with president’s tax returns MORE (D-Mich.) and Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedNegotiators kick off defense bill talks amid border wall, Iran debates Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers | Big tech defends efforts against online extremism | Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser | Omar urges Twitter to take action against Trump tweet Senate Democrats introduce legislation to limit foreign interference in elections MORE (D-R.I.) to withdraw troops by next April.

In recent weeks, Democrats have talked about changing the Levin-Reed amendment from a firm deadline to a goal of withdrawing troops — in the hopes of winning more GOP support. But on Tuesday, Reid backed away from that strategy, saying that Democrats would keep the language as a firm deadline for withdrawal.

“We haven’t found much movement in the Republicans,” Reid said. “They seem to be sticking with the president.”

Elana Schor contributed to this report.