- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2007

Neither President Bush nor top Democrats, who met yesterday for an hour at the White House, budged in their 10-week-old standoff over a $100 billion emergency funding bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The lawmakers who control Congress remain intent on sending the president a bill that sets a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops, and Mr. Bush remains ready to veto the legislation.

The two sides, though, did agree — to disagree.

“Clearly, we cannot pass legislation over the president’s veto, and he can’t pass legislation that we don’t agree with,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat. “The fact is that we need to come to agreement so that we can move forward.”

But White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said: “It appears that they are determined to send a bill to the president that he won’t accept. They fundamentally disagree.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said after the “polite” meeting that Democrats had spoken their minds to the president — “and I think he needs to hear more of conversations from people like us who don’t always tell him what he wants to hear.”

For his part, Mr. Bush told the lawmakers he will veto any bill that sets an arbitrary timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

“There are fundamental disagreements on efforts to legislate surrender dates,” White House spokesman Tony Fratto said after the meeting.

The White House knows that Democratic leaders want to proceed in a two-step process — force the president to veto a timetable bill, then proceed with negotiations on new legislation. While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has not yet even designated members of the House to begin to consolidate its bill with the Senate, Democrats vowed to send the president a bill soon.

“It has been our plan to pass legislation next week so the president can take it up at his earliest time, and hopefully give some hope to the American people that we understand that they want us to work together to wind down this war, bring our troops home safely,” Mrs. Pelosi, of California, said.

What happens after that remains to be seen, but neither side is ready to abandon its position.

“We need a new conversation about Iraq, and the conversation has to be between us and the president,” Mr. Reid, of Nevada, said.

As the participants gathered in the Cabinet Room for the meeting, Mr. Bush noted that “people have strong opinions around the table and I’m looking forward to listening to them.”

“The whole objective is to figure out how best to get our troops funded, get the money they need to do the job that I’ve asked them to do,” he said.

Republican leaders, who also attended the White House meeting, said the session produced no breakthrough. Asked whether the meeting had changed any views, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner had just one word: “No.”

“The real issue … is whether we’re going to agree to a surrender date, and that’s not going to happen,” Mr. Boehner, of Ohio, said.

The Senate bill passed last month calls for most troops to leave Iraq by March 31, while the House legislation sets a September 2008 withdrawal deadline. Neither bill passed with a veto-proof majority.

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

The standoff threatens to stall war funds, even as the Pentagon said money started to run out this week. Mr. Bush says it undermines the war effort, but Democrats say troops should exit Iraq’s “civil war.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have suggested replacing pullout deadlines with benchmarks for progress in Iraq. But Democratic leadership said it will keep pushing for an exit date, even if Mr. Bush vetoes the pending legislation.

Outside the White House yesterday, demonstrators with the antiwar group CodePink chanted, “Don’t fund Bush’s war.” Several protesters chained themselves to the iron fence before Secret Service officers cut the chains and arrested them.

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