Thursday, September 20, 2007

No Legislated Rest for Troops: Webb Amendment

Once again, Republican senators fell in line with the Defense Department and the Bush administration by rejecting a bipartisan amendment that would let soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have at least same time off at home as their latest deployment before they are redeployed. The amendment, sponsored by Sens. James Webb, D-Va., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., failed on a 56-44 vote because a 60-vote super-majority was needed for passage. Wednesday's vote was nearly identical to a previous vote in July.

The Democrats voted along party lines, while six Republicans defected (was Grassley one of them? need to say how he voted somewhere in story), which prompted disappointment on the Democratic side of the aisle. “I was disappointed that the Webb amendment did not pass yesterday," Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa said in a statement to the Iowa Independent. "This amendment would have provided support to our troops by ensuring they didn’t suffer from lengthy deployments without proper dwell time, unless absolutely necessary for our national security. I find it absurd that anyone can stand up there and say they support our troops, but vote against these amendments. Our troops are at a breaking point -- we cannot continue on the path we are on.”

The GOP, including Iowa’s Sen. Chuck Grassley, blocked what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has characterized as a back-door attempt by Democrats to force the Bush administration to draw down troops. Grassley could not be reached for comment but had issued a statement to the Iowa Independent regarding his “no” vote when the amendment first came up for a vote in July. "The last thing politicians in Washington should do is tie the hands of our commanders on the ground by dictating troop rotations," Grassley said. “New troop deployment policies as well as increases to the size of the active duty military should help relieve the stress on our current forces, and the reserve forces in particular -- while maintaining the flexibility and capability to respond to national security needs."

Gates had recommended that Bush veto the proposed legislation before Wednesday’s vote in the Senate, contending the bill would hamstring the Pentagon’s ability to maintain current troop levels in Iraq. "It would be extremely difficult for us to manage that. It really is a back-door way to try and force the president to accelerate the draw-downs," Gates said.

Democrats appeared to have some momentum when Sen. John Warner, R-Va., had voiced his support for the amendment, only to change his mind after a last-minute campaign by the Defense Department and the White House to kill the bill. Warner’s late defection deflated any momentum that had been building, thus ensuring the amendment's second death.

Meanwhile, military personnel and family members are facing uncertainty upon the return of soldiers, not really knowing when they will be redeployed. One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., pleaded their case on the Senate floor. “We owe it to our troops and their families to adopt a fair policy that ensures predictable rotations, adequate time to be with their families before redeployment, and adequate time for realistic training for the difficult assignments we are giving them,” said Obama, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

“There are scores of anecdotes that bear out the strain on our families,” Obama said. "One woman from Illinois recently wrote my office to tell me how her husband was facing his fourth deployment in four-and-one-half years. She described how her husband had spent so much time in Iraq that, in her words: ‘He feels like he is stationed in Iraq and only deploys home.’ That is not an acceptable way to treat our troops. That is not an acceptable way to treat their families.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., an adamant opponent of the Webb/Hagel amendment urged Congress to reject the measure on constitutional grounds. “The Constitution of the United States gives no authority for the Congress of the United States to set lengths of tour or lengths of duty in the military, and I hope we will steadfastly reject this kind of micromanagement, which would create chaos,” McCain said.

Webb rejected McCain’s assertion that the Senate has no role in troop deployments on CNN. “Well, first of all, Senator McCain, who I’ve known for 30 years, needs to read the Constitution. There is a provision in Article I, Section 8, which clearly gives the Congress the authority to make rules with respect to the ground and naval forces. There’s precedent for this."

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., backed up his Democratic colleague in a press release: “Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution says clearly that Congress must ‘make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces,’” said Biden. “This may be the president's war, but it is America's sons and daughters fighting it. Congress must and will do what is necessary to protect them and preserve the readiness of our military to meet any threats to our security.”

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