- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2007

President Bush summoned congressional leaders to the White House yesterday to discuss the urgency of approving added war funds for Iraq and Afghanistan, but late last night Democrats said they would use the bill to set a deadline for a total withdrawal from Iraq.

“Getting the funding to the troops when and where they need it is of upmost importance. We don’t want any delay,” White House budget office spokesman Sean Kevelighan said of the president’s viewpoint.

He also said Mr. Bush discouraged Democrats’ plans to tack domestic spending items onto the military-funding bill.

“The supplemental is about funding the troops for the global war on terror, and we need to stay on that track,” Mr. Kevelighan said.

However, Democratic officials told the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity that they will add to that $100 billion bill provisions to require the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq by September 2008, and even earlier if the Iraqi government fails to meet security and other goals.

The conditions, which the AP described as tentative until presented to the Democratic rank and file, is expected on the floor of the House later this month, and would mark the most direct challenge to date the new Democrat-controlled Congress has posed to the president’s war policies.

The office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced plans for a news conference to release the measure this morning, without providing any of the details. The announcement said she would be joined by Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, and other key lawmakers.

The nearly $100 billion spending bill has stalled as Democrats struggled to appease their anti-war base with measures to rein in the war effort while not alienating the party’s conservatives called Blue Dogs, who don’t want to cut funds for troops in combat.

Republicans have criticized the majority’s infighting as creating a delay in approving the supplemental funding, which Defense Department officials say they need by April to keep fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said the money for the troops was “absolutely necessary.” But he also told reporters that he raised the issue of including money for the Department of Veterans Affairs and military hospitals, which have come under scrutiny for poor housing conditions and bureaucratic obstacles to treatment for troops.

The rare meeting between the president and the top congressional leaders of both parties included discussions of a new commission to investigate the military health care system.

“I’d hate to ask this commission to make findings and then wait seven or eight months to respond until the next fiscal year,” Mr. Durbin said.

The president also discussed immigration reform and his trip to Latin America, according to congressional aides familiar with the meeting.

Other Democrats at the meeting were Mrs. Pelosi of California, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Republicans present included House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, House Minority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi.

But the measure to be released today demonstrates how House Democrats have struggled to unite the caucus for the Iraq appropriations debate. War critics say the leadership has gone too far to give Mr. Bush authority to proceed with plans to send more than 21,000 additional troops to Iraq as part of a security surge.

Anti-war House Democrats already had intended to announce a proposal today that would call for a “fully funded and systematic withdrawal” from Iraq. The proposal to require that additional military funding pay for the exit of U.S. troops from Iraq by a set date comes from the 71-member House Progressive Caucus, a Democratic group led by Reps. Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey, both of California, with membership that closely follows the Out of Iraq Caucus.

“We are pushing for a vote on this,” said a Democratic staffer close to the Progressive Caucus. “The progressives are trying to be a part of the debate.”

It was not immediately clear late last night whether Mrs. Pelosi’s proposal would pre-empt the Progressive Caucus’ plans.

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