US Senate Rejects Webb-Hagel Bill for Troop Safety Net

A bipartisan proposal to guarantee US troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan equal time at home and on the battlefield was defeated in the Senate on Wednesday.

Sponsored by Senators James Webb (D-Va.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), the proposal failed by 56 votes to 44 – with 60 needed for passage.

A decorated Vietnam veteran and former Navy secretary, Senator Webb had expressed concern that US forces risk being “burned out” by repeated redeployments to Iraq. Some tours have been extended to 15 months with less than a year off in between deployments.

A similar bill to give troops more leave was passed in the House.

During the Senate debate, Senator Webb argued: “As this debate is going on, I think it’s very important that we just put a safety net under our troops to reassure them that however long they’re being deployed, they should be able to have that much time, at least, at home, in order to refurbish, retrain, have time with their families and mentally get prepared to go.”

Prior to the debate, Senator Webb had consulted with Republicans to make adjustments where necessary to gain their support. Exemptions were added, for example, in the case of service members who volunteer to return to battle early.

However, an eleventh-hour lobbying campaign by the Defense Department and the White House persuaded Senator John Warner (R-Va.) to oppose the proposal, which virtually ensured its defeat. Only six Republicans voted in favor of it.

“I agree with the principles that you have laid down in your amendment,” said Senator Warner. “But I regret to say that I’ve been convinced by those in the professional uniform that they cannot do it, and do it in a way that wouldn’t invoke further unfairness to other soldiers now serving in Iraq.”

Minority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said after the vote that the proposal would have set a “dangerous precedent” and that there were other ways to address the troops’ need for more leave.

“All of us agree that our forces must be rested, trained and equipped, which is why this underlying bill continues the expansion of the nation’s Army Corps and Marine Corps,” said Senator McConnell. “However, to tie the hands of our military commanders to deploy forces is a dangerous precedent.”

Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.) accused Republican senators of protecting the President at the expense of the well-being of US troops. “In blocking this bipartisan bill, Republicans have once again demonstrated that they are more committed to protecting the President than protecting our troops,” he said.

“They have shown they will allow President Bush’s flawed war strategy to continue to strain our military rather than allow the availability of troops to dictate our operations. And they believe it is in our national security interest to push our brave troops and their families beyond their breaking point.”

Yet Senator John McCain of Nevada, a decorated Vietnam veteran and Republican presidential candidate, said the plan had been appropriately rejected in light of the “sound argument” provided by the Petraeus-Crocker testimony last week that “we are succeeding in Iraq”. He added, “We have one commander in chief and one only.”

Democrats have made several attempts to pass legislation to begin winding down the war in Iraq, with all proposals failing on the Senate floor.

Of all the bills scheduled to be debated, the Webb-Hagel proposal seemed to be the one that offered the greatest hope of bipartisan agreement because it focused on the health of the troops and their families without setting timetables for withdrawal or threatening to withhold funding for the war.

The proposal’s co-sponsor, Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) , said that Republican senators had been heavily lobbied to oppose the amendment.

“The White House has been very effective of making this a loyalty test for the party,” he said.

Some reports have estimated that up to one-third of US war veterans are returning from Iraq with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition psychiatrists say is more likely to afflict troops exposed to combat. Successful early intervention and recovery are more difficult if patients are sent back into combat before treatment is completed.

Military families have been increasingly vocal about the heightened stress associated with repeated deployments, which often manifests in the form of mental health problems, alcoholism and family breakdown.

Some soldiers have spent more than half of the past five years deployed in war zones.

Sources: The Washington Post, Reuters, Medical News Today

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