US Senate Democrats lose on Iraq pullout plan

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WASHINGTON, Sep 21 (Reuters) Frustrated US Senate Democrats failed today to force a troop pullout from Iraq, losing ground from an earlier vote and capping a series of defeats that reinforced the chamber's divide over the war.

The proposal's sponsors said they would spend the weekend crafting a compromise to try to attract more support, and denied they were wasting the Senate's time.

''We're not going to be discouraged,'' Michigan Democratic Sen.

Carl Levin said. ''There's no better use of the Senate's time than to try to change the direction in Iraq.'' The Senate voted 47 to 47 on a plan by Levin and Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed to require most US troops to leave Iraq within nine months of the bill's enactment. That was far short of the 60-vote threshold needed to clear a Senate procedural hurdle and bring the bill to a final vote.

The loss was one of a string of Democratic defeats on the war this week. A Democratic proposal for a war funding cutoff was rejected yesterday, and a plan to give US troops more leave between deployments also failed amid criticism it wou d limit the military's ability to maintain force levels.

War opponents in the Senate have endured similar setbacks all year, but had hoped more Republicans would break with President George W Bush this fall and embrace timelines for bringing US troops home, or at least back other plans that challenged strategy in the unpopular war.

But the Republican minority in the closely divided Senate felt bolstered by a recent report from Gen David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, who said some progress was being made.

'DANGEROUS PRECEDENT' Before today's vote, South Carolina Republican Sen Lindsey Graham said it was a ''dangerous precedent'' for Congress to undermine a strategy ''that has proven to be successful.'' Reed, however, noted that Petraeus had embraced part of the Democrats' approach by announcing plans for a limited drawdown to about 130,000 troops next summer, from 169,000 now in Iraq.

Reed highlighted ''the reality here at home: waning support for a policy that the American people feel is misguided and has been incompetently executed by the administration.'' The Democrats actually lost ground today from a 52-47 vote on a similar measure in July, although Levin pointed out that the July vote was a procedural one -- and that six senators were absent today, including three likely supporters.

One Democrat who voted against the withdrawal plan today was presidential hopeful Chris Dodd of Connecticut, a fierce war critic, who complained that the measure did not enforce the troop pullout with a cutoff of war funds.

This highlighted the dilemma that Levin and Reed face while trying to craft a compromise. If they manage to attract more than the handful of Republicans who have voted with them so far, they may lose fervent anti-war Democrats.

Levin said they would try anyway, by softening the nine-month deadline for troop withdrawals into a goal instead of a binding date.

Other compromise plans have proliferated among Senate centrists in both parties, but they have not coalesced around a way forward.

Democratic leaders said this week they were disinterested in a compromise that would not bring US troops home, while the White House lobbied to keep Republican moderates from embracing Democratic proposals for change.

REUTERS GT ND2320

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