WASHINGTON - Anti-war Democrats in the Senate failed in an attempt to cut off funds for the Iraq war on Wednesday, a lopsided bipartisan vote that masked growing impatience within both political parties over President Bush's handling of the four-year conflict.
The 67-29 vote against the measure left it far short of the 60 needed to advance. More than half the Senate's Democrats supported the move, exposing divisions within the party but also marking a growth in anti-war sentiment from last summer, when only a dozen members of the rank and file backed a troop withdrawal deadline.
"It was considered absolute heresy four months ago" to stop the war, said Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, author of the measure to cut off funds for most military operations after March 31, 2008.
Ironically, the vote also cleared the way for the Democratic-controlled Congress to bow to Bush's wishes and approve a war funding bill next week stripped of the type of restrictions that drew his veto earlier this spring.
Democrats vowed in January to force an end to the war, and nowhere is the shift in sentiment more evident than among the party's presidential contenders in the Senate.
For the first time, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Barack Obama of Illinois and Joe Biden of Delaware joined Sen. Chris Dodd in lending support to the notion of setting a date to end U.S. participation in the war.
Clinton, the Democrats' presidential front-runner in most early polls, has adamantly opposed setting a date for a troop withdrawal, and she gave conflicting answers during the day when asked whether her vote signified support for a cutoff in funds.
"I'm not going to speculate on what I'll be voting on in the future," she said at midday. But a few hours later she said: "I support the ... bill. That's what this vote ... was all about."
Other Democrats were unmistakably clear.
"How many more soldiers do we have to bury? How many more do we have to bring into our military and veterans hospitals? How many more thousands of innocent Iraqis have to die before we finally accept our responsibility to bring this war to an end?" asked Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.
Republicans voted unanimously against the measure, and several judged it harshly. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the GOP leader, said it fixed a "surrender date" for the United States.
There were 28 Democrats in favor of advancing the bill, and 19 opposed.
"An arbitrary cutoff date would take away an important negotiating tool," said Sen. Jim Webb, of Virginia, a Democratic critic of the war elected to his first term last November. He noted that the administration had recently taken steps to engage Iran in diplomacy in hopes of easing the sectarian violence in neighboring Iraq.
The vote occurred as Congress pursued multiple objectives in connection with a war that has claimed the lives of more than 3,400 U.S. troops.
Congressional leaders hope to send Bush legislation by the end of next week providing more than $90 billion to pay for the war through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, and at least part of the reason for the day's events was to give lawmakers an outlet for their unhappiness.
Several Republicans, led by Sen. John Warner of Virginia, proposed legislation that threatened a reduction in reconstruction funds if the Iraqi government fails to make progress toward a series of military and political goals, and provides for outside experts to report to lawmakers on the subject.
"The Iraqi government, it strikes me, needs to understand that they're running out of time to get their part of the job done," said McConnell.
But the same proposal would have given Bush authority to waive the requirement for Iraqi progress, and it drew objections from Democrats as a result.
"It's is really very tepid, very weak," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
In the end, the vote was 52-44, more than a majority but less than the 60 needed to advance under the rules in effect.
While Feingold's attempt to cut off funds is likely to recede into the background, at least for the time being, the suggestion that the Iraqis be held to account for their promises to foster democracy and strengthen their own military has wide currency within Congress.
Bush, too, has said he is willing to accept so-called benchmarks within legislation that provides the funds the Pentagon needs, although so far, he has not agreed to enforcement measures that might reduce reconstruction funds ticketed for Iraq.
That is one of the issues that is likely to surface , if it hasn't already , in secretive talks that Reid and McConnell have held in recent days with White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten in hopes of forging a compromise war funding bill.
Warner's measure also said the United States should begin a withdrawal if the Iraqi government requests one, another idea that is quietly gaining support in Congress.
At the White House, deputy press secretary Dana Perino said: "The U.N. Security Council resolution, which provides the present basis for coalition forces in Iraq, has always been subject to termination by the Iraqi government. So this is nothing new."
There is relatively little controversy over the amount of money to be provided for the Pentagon, but Bush and congressional Republicans object to billions of dollars in domestic spending that Democrats favor.
Of less concern to the White House is a Democratic attempt to add a minimum wage increase to the measure. It calls for three increases of 70 cents an hour over the next two years, and would provide the first raise in more than a decade in the federal wage floor.
The debate over Iraq has dominated the work of the Democratic-controlled Congress this year, and in recent weeks, Republicans, too, have begun to show their impatience with the war.
A group of 11 moderate House Republicans met with Bush and several top advisers at the White House recently, bluntly telling him that the party's political prospects in 2008 were in jeopardy as a result of the war.