WASHINGTON - The Senate rejected a proposal on Thursday to require President Barack Obama to submit a timetable for pulling U.S. forces out of Afghanistan, despite unease among some members of his party over the nine-year-old war.
The 80-18 vote nixed a bid by liberal Democrat Russ Feingold for a detailed troop timetable, which he argued would avoid future "emergency" war spending bills such as the $33 billion one now before the Senate.
But most members of the Democratic-majority Senate proved unwilling to dictate to the president, with a buildup of 30,000 additional troops still underway that Obama ordered to Afghanistan and a new military push in the Kandahar area.
Adopting Feingold's plan would "reinforce the fear ... that the United States will abandon the region," Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Democrat, said.
Levin said this was unwise as the Taliban is "doing everything it can" to convince Afghans that U.S., NATO and Afghan forces cannot protect them.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, also voted against Feingold's proposal. "I've felt no impatience about Afghanistan in my caucus," he said on Wednesday.
But several Democratic senators are increasingly anxious now that U.S. combat deaths have passed the 1,000 mark in Afghanistan and the cost of the war topped $300 billion.
The war in Iraq has cost over $700 billion, with 4,400 U.S. military dead since 2003.
"I'm impatient. Time to start thinking about a different approach, I think," Senator Tom Harkin said earlier this week.
Senator Jeff Bingaman, another Democrat, said: "I think there's a high level of impatience, but exactly what should be done legislatively about that issue, I don't know." He voted against Feingold's proposal; Harkin voted for it.
END DATE SOUGHT
Feingold acknowledged Obama had set July 2011 as a starting date for removing U.S. troops, but said there should also be an end date. "The president should convey to the American and Afghan people how long he anticipates it will take to complete his military objectives," he said.
There were no Republican votes for his plan.
"Thanks to the McChrystal strategy, American forces have already brought pressure on the Taliban in Afghanistan. We need to keep that pressure up if this counterinsurgency strategy is to succeed, and it must," Republican leader Mitch McConnell said. General Stanley McChrystal is in charge of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The Senate also shelved a Republican proposal to find ways to pay for the new war spending with cuts to other programs. Reid scoffed at this idea, saying Republicans "never raised a fuss about paying for the war under President Bush."
Reid wants the Senate to finish the war spending bill this week. The money must also be approved by the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls it a "heavy lift" among Democrats wary of spending more on the battlefield.
The House Appropriations Committee was expected to vote on its version later on Thursday.
Obama requested $33 billion in February to pay for his Afghan surge, but Congress has been busy with domestic priorities and worried about scarce budget resources. The money comes on top of about $130 billion that Congress already approved for Afghanistan and Iraq through Sept. 30.
The Senate version includes around $4 billion for a "civilian surge" of economic aid for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
(Editing by Sue Pleming and Philip Barbara)