Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- There was a vote on the Iraq war in the Senate last week that the Democrats lost 58-40, a decent margin in light of growing public opposition to the way President Bush has handled that conflict.

What happened in the Senate was a significant milestone in the history of the war. It was the first vote on the subject of troop withdrawal. It also was apparently the first time Democrats had offered an amendment for a vote on the war. And, in the end, both parties, by a vote of 79-19, accepted a GOP substitute that embraced the idea an eventual "phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq," minus any mention of dates certain.

The Democrats' amendment to the defense authorization bill was clearly an attempt to test Bush's strength in the Republican-controlled chamber. In a nutshell, it would have pressured the administration, among other things, to set forth a plan "with estimated dates" for the withdrawal of U.S. forces as Iraqi security goals were met.

Most Democrats voted for it. Only four joined the Republicans to kill it. When the legislative skirmish ended, both sides were claiming victory.

The Republicans had clearly demonstrated that a majority opposed any move to tie the war to some arbitrary dates that would send a signal to the terrorists that if they wait us out, the time will come when they will be able to unleash a bloody offensive to topple a tenuous democracy still in its infancy.

Antiwar Democrats maintained they had forced Republicans to debate the nature of the war, its expected length and costs and the need for some planned exit strategy sometime in the future.

But Senate Republican leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner, R-Va., decided that even though they had the votes to kill the amendment, they needed something more: to send a signal to the White House and to all Americans that they, too, wanted more clarity about how the war was proceeding and language that showed the GOP was not insensitive to the issue of its expected duration.

The Democratic amendment flatly declared that U.S. troops cannot stay in Iraq indefinitely and that the Iraqis must be told there will come a time, sooner rather than later, when they will be in charge of their own security. The Republican substitute changed that language to fit Bush's admonition that we will not stay in Iraq one day longer than is required to finish the mission and that the Iraqis must be advised of this.

It was a classic example of legislative sausage-making, with the GOP picking phrases from the Democratic amendment that they could accept, but adding language agreeable to the White House.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.