Story Highlights• White House reiterates president's threat to veto
• Senate defeats amendment to strip deadline from funding bill
• Administration contends setting timetable assumes failure in Iraq
• Bill funds spending on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, sets March 2008 deadline
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Defying President Bush, the Democratic-led Senate on Tuesday turned back a Republican attempt to remove a call for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq from a $124 billion war-spending bill.
Though the 50-48 vote is far short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto, Democrats said the measure was a sign of growing support for bringing the four-year-old war to an end.
"This is a strong message which amplifies the action of the House and reflects the overwhelming sentiment of the American people," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island. "It's a message that must be heeded by the president and by the government of Iraq."
The bill would require U.S. combat troops to begin withdrawing from Iraq within 120 days and complete that pullout by next March. A reduced American contingent would stay to focus on training Iraqi troops and police and battling al Qaeda terrorists. (Watch how the vote unfolded in the Senate )
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said that effectively sets a "surrender date" in the war.
"Setting a date for withdrawal is like sending a memo to our enemies that tells them to rest, refit and re-plan until the day we leave," he said. "It's a memo to our friends, too, telling them we plan to walk away and leave them on their own, regardless of what we leave behind." (Watch Sen. John McCain assess Iraq's future )
The $124 billion appropriation comes on top of $70 billion already approved for this year and would drive the price tag for the now-unpopular war past the half-trillion-dollar mark. The Pentagon says it would have to start diverting funds from other programs to Iraq unless it passes by mid-April.
The spending bill passed the House of Representatives with an August 2008 deadline last week. But Bush has vowed to veto any bill that contains a call for a U.S. withdrawal or what he considers extraneous pork-barrel spending, and dismissed the House measure as "political theater."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino reiterated that threat Tuesday.
"Regardless of the success our troops are achieving in the field, this bill would require their withdrawal," she said. "This and other provisions would place freedom and democracy in Iraq at grave risk, embolden our enemies and undercut the administration's plans to develop the Iraqi economy." (Watch the top U.S. commander outline his concerns )
Earlier this month, the Senate's Democratic majority fell short of another attempt to impose a timeline for withdrawal. Republicans had used the threat of a filibuster to kill previous statements of opposition to the war. But McConnell said the GOP would not use that tactic, which requires 60 votes to overcome, in this case because "it's important to get the money to the troops."
Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois said the call for a pullout is a step toward bringing "the worst foreign policy mistake of our time" to an end.
"Now it's time for us to make it clear to the Iraqis it is their country. It is their war. It is their future," he said.
The Senate vote went down to the wire, with the White House hustling Vice President Dick Cheney to Capitol Hill to break a possible tie. Earlier, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acknowledged, "We don't know how it's going to turn out."
Two Republicans -- Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon Smith of Oregon -- joined 48 Democrats to turn back the GOP-backed amendment. (Watch Hagel question claims of progress in Iraq )
"The American people are demanding that we develop a bipartisan consensus for an honorable and responsible exit strategy from Iraq," said Hagel, a possible Republican presidential candidate. "If we fail to build a bipartisan foundation for an exit strategy, America will pay a high price for this blunder, one that we will have difficulty recovering from in the years ahead."
One Democrat, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, joined Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman to vote with the Republican leadership. And Virginia Sen. John Warner, a leading GOP opponent of Bush's plan to send 30,000 more troops to Iraq, rejoined the Republican fold on Tuesday's vote, warning that calling for withdrawal would sound "the bugle of retreat."
"It would be echoed and repeated from every minaret in Iraq that coalition forces have begun to take the first step backwards," said Warner, a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "We cannot take that step -- not at this time."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid answers questions on Tuesday.
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