WASHINGTON Senate Republicans on Tuesday helped advance a Democratic-pushed bill to cut off money for the war in Iraq, saying the additional debating time would allow them to hail progress there.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said the debate will allow the GOP to cite the "extraordinary progress that's been made in Iraq over the last six months, not only on the military side, but also with civilian reconciliation beginning to finally take hold in the country."
The Senate voted 70-24 to advance the bill past a procedural hurdle and begin debating it in earnest. A final vote was expected later this week or next week.
The White House said the president would veto such a measure.
"This legislation would substitute the political judgment of legislators for the considered professional military judgment of our military commanders," according to an administration statement.
Democrats said they welcomed the debate, although they accused Republicans of stalling on plans to debate other issues.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that "a civil war rages" in Iraq and shouldn't be the responsibility of U.S. taxpayers.
"Americans need to start taking care of Americans," he said. "We cannot spend a half billion dollars every day in Iraq."
Senate Republicans had been widely expected to block the measure, as they had done repeatedly in the past. But after emerging from a closed-door meeting earlier Tuesday, McConnell said the GOP members had indicated they were now eager to discuss the war.
In recent months, violence in Iraq has subsided significantly and the Baghdad government has made small steps toward political reconciliation, including plans to hold provincial elections on Oct. 1.
While Democratic voters remain largely against the war, polls have shown, the security improvement has helped to cool anxiety among Republicans and have had the effect of turning the focus on to economic problems at home.
The vote came as the Army's top general said he wants to reduce combat tours for soldiers in Iraq from 15 months to 12 months this summer.
Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, told a Senate panel he would not embrace going back to the longer tours even if President Bush decided to suspend troop reductions for the second half of the year. The Army is under serious strain from years of war-fighting, he testified, and must reduce the length of combat tours as soon as possible.
"The cumulative effects of the last six-plus years at war have left our Army out of balance, consumed by the current fight and unable to do the things we know we need to do to properly sustain our all-volunteer force and restore our flexibility for an uncertain future," Casey said.
Casey, who was the top U.S. commander in Iraq before taking the chief of staff job last spring, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that cutting the time soldiers spend in combat is an integral part of reducing the stress on the force.
He said he anticipates the service can cut combat tours from 15 months to 12 months this summer, as long as the president reduces the number of active-duty Army brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan to 15 units by July, as planned.
The committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., pressed Casey on whether he could keep tour lengths at 12 months if Bush decides to suspend the troop reductions after reaching 15 brigades in July.
"We believe it will still be possible, even with the pause," Casey replied. When asked by Levin if that would hold true "regardless of the length of the pause," Casey, replied, "Yes."
However, the number of soldiers retained under the service's "stop loss" policy which forces some soldiers to stay on beyond their retirement or re-enlistment dates is unlikely to be reduced substantially.
"We are consuming readiness now, as quickly as we're building it," said Army Secretary Pete Geren, who also testified.
Geren also urged Congress to pass a $100 billion war spending bill this spring, contending that the Army will run out of money by July.
According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the Army could probably last until August or September by transferring money from less urgent accounts. Army officials counter that this approach is inefficient and can cause major program disruptions.