(CBS/AP) In a turnabout, Senate Republicans are agreeing with Democrats to advance an anti-war bill because they said the debate would give them an opportunity to praise the U.S. military's progress in Iraq.
The change of heart came after months of blocking similar measures. Unlike most of last year, however, security conditions in Iraq have improved, and Republicans say they now feel they have the upper hand in the debate.
"We welcome a discussion about Iraq," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell declared.
The measure, by Democratic Sens. Russ Feingold and Majority Leader Harry Reid, would cut off money for combat after 120 days. It had been expected to fall short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a procedural hurdle and move ahead.
After Republicans agreed in a private meeting that the debate could help make their case, the Senate voted 70-24 to begin debating it in earnest.
Aides said a final vote might come this week but may be pushed into next week.
The White House said President Bush would veto such a measure.
"This legislation would substitute the political judgment of legislators for the considered professional military judgment of our military commanders," the administration said in a statement.
Democrats said they welcomed the debate, although they accused Republicans of stalling on plans to debate other issues, namely the nation's housing crisis.
Reid said "a civil war rages" in Iraq and should not be the responsibility of U.S. taxpayers.
"Americans need to start taking care of Americans," he said. "We cannot spend a half-billion dollars every day in Iraq."
In recent months, violence in Iraq has subsided significantly, and the Baghdad government has made small steps toward political reconciliation, including plans to hold provincial elections on Oct. 1.
In other developments:
While American Democratic voters remain largely against the war, polls have shown the security improvement has helped to cool anxiety among Republicans and turned voters' focus to economic problems at home.
Still, Republicans say they have more convincing to do if they are to control the White House next year.
Sen. John McCain, the party's probable presidential nominee, said this week that to win the White House he must convince a war-weary country that U.S. policy in Iraq in succeeding.
If he can't, "then I lose. I lose," he said. He quickly backed off the remark.
McCain was not expected to return to Washington for the Senate debate, but he said he opposes the bill.
"If ever there was a case for precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, and I believe there never was, now is the last time anyone should consider such a step," he said in a statement.
Tuesday's Senate vote came as the Army's top general said he wants to reduce combat tours for soldiers in Iraq from 15 months to 12 months this summer.
Gen. George Casey, the U.S. Army chief of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he would not go back to the longer tours even if Mr. Bush should decide to suspend troop reductions for the second half of the year. The Army is under serious strain from years of war-fighting, he testified, and must reduce the length of combat tours quickly.
"The cumulative effects of the last six-plus years at war have left our Army out of balance, consumed by the current fight and unable to do the things we know we need to do to properly sustain our all-volunteer force and restore our flexibility for an uncertain future," Casey said.
Casey, who was the top U.S. commander in Iraq before taking the chief of staff job last spring, told the committee that reducing the time soldiers spend in combat is an integral part of lowering the force's stress level.
He said he anticipates that the service can cut combat tours back to 12 months this summer as long as Bush reduces the number of active-duty Army brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan to 15 units by July, as planned.
The committee chairman, Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, pressed Casey, seen at left, on whether he could keep tour lengths at 12 months if Mr. Bush should decide to suspend the troop reductions after reaching 15 brigades in July.
"We believe it will still be possible, even with the pause," Casey replied. When asked by Levin if that would hold true "regardless of the length of the pause," Casey, replied, "Yes."
However, the number of soldiers retained under the service's "stop loss" policy, which forces some soldiers to stay beyond their retirement or re-enlistment dates, is unlikely to be reduced substantially.
"We are consuming readiness now as quickly as we're building it," said Army Secretary Pete Geren, who also testified.
Geren urged Congress to pass a $100 billion war spending bill this spring, contending that the Army will run out of money by July.
According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the Army probably could last until August or September by transferring money from less urgent accounts. Army officials counter that this approach is inefficient and can cause major program disruptions.
© MMVIII, CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.