- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 14, 2007

Senate Republicans yesterday said Democrats are weakening in the war-funding standoff with the White House, citing party infighting and the capitulation of its leaders to meet next week with President Bush.

“They are very divided on the issue,” said Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, chairman of the Republican Conference. “The Democrats are all over the board on this.”

He said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi looked “embarrassed” when they snubbed a White House invitation but then turned around and agreed to the talks on the war-funding bill Mr. Bush vows to veto.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Democrats are having “a debate among themselves” and he sees cracks in support for a troop pullout from Iraq.

“The first dam that is going to break is going to be on the other side after they see a presidential veto,” the Kentucky Republican said.

But Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, said his caucus will not retreat from the troop-withdrawal timelines Congress attached to $100 billion of emergency funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We’re not going to back down from what we think is right for this country,” Mr. Reid told reporters Thursday after reluctantly accepting the president’s invitation.

The standoff over withdrawal deadlines for U.S. forces in Iraq threatens to stall war funds even as Pentagon officials say money starts to run out tomorrow. Mr. Bush says it undermines the war effort, but Democrats say troops need to exit Iraq’s “civil war.”

Mr. Reid has noted continued support for the timelines by freshman Democratic senators, who won office in November’s elections that swept their party into the majority for the first time in a dozen years.

However, Democrats throughout the Senate ranks say they will refuse to withholding troop funding — a tactic advocated by Mr. Reid.

Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat up for re-election next year, said she would not block war funds and opposes withdrawal timetables, although she joined the 51-47 vote to pass the carefully worded “goal” of a complete pullout by March 31.

“We must set clear goals and benchmarks for success in Iraq. … But I cannot support timetables that call for redeployment based on an arbitrary calendar date,” Mrs. Landrieu said, stressing she supports full funding for the troops.

“I will continue to support our military personnel as they make strategic decisions in the field that they deem most appropriate to achieving our objectives,” she said.

Opposition to blocking war funds also has been voiced by Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Charles E. Schumer of New York, vice chairman of the caucus.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have suggested replacing pullout deadlines with benchmarks for progress in Iraq, but the Democratic leadership says it will keep pushing for an exit date.

“We are going to go after this time and time again until there is a change in Iraq,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley said.

He also dismissed Republican assertions that the Democratic caucus was softening on an Iraq pullout.

“They are going to be in for quite a surprise,” Mr. Manley said. “The Democrats are united on the need to transition the mission in Iraq. The fact is, the president’s failed policies are putting the Republicans on the Hill in a very dangerous, difficult position where they are significantly at odds with the will of the American people.”

A conference committee will begin hammering out differences between the House and Senate bills Tuesday and a final version is not likely to reach Mr. Bush until the end of the month.

The House bill sets a September 2008 withdrawal deadline and the Senate bill called for most troops to leave Iraq by March 31.

Both bills contain about $20 billion in nonmilitary spending, including pork-barrel projects that lured support from some skeptical lawmakers, bringing the House bill to $124 billion and the Senate version to $123 billion.

Mr. Bush and Republican leaders were critical of Mrs. Pelosi’s decision to leave for a two-week spring break and a trip to Syria without appointing members to the conference committee. She is expected to name the members Monday when the House reconvenes.

Christina Bellantoni contributed to this article.

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