Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Democratic leaders in Congress are slowly backing down from a standoff with the White House over tying war funding to a troop-withdrawal timetable, saying they can use other bills to confront President Bush on Iraq.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, is courting Republican support for compromise war-funding legislation to follow Mr. Bush’s promised veto this week of a $124 billion bill that would start a pullout as soon as July.

Senior Democratic aides say that although House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is not similarly talking to Republicans about a post-veto agreement, she privately acknowledges that eventually the “money will get to the troops without timetables.”

“Probably a weakening of is what is going to happen,” said an aide close to Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat.

House Democrats are expected to attempt to override the veto this week, although they likely are at least 70 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to succeed. The failure of the House vote would make a Senate action unnecessary because both chambers are needed to defeat a veto.

“There are a number of opportunities to try to force a change of policy in Iraq,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley said, citing upcoming Defense Department budget bills and legislation to limit war funding to noncombat missions in Iraq.

But, for now, Mr. Reid, who along with congressional leaders from both parties will meet with Mr. Bush tomorrow, is focused on the emergency war-funding bill, which would pay for the war in Iran and Iraq until Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

“We have to see if we can get that is acceptable to Republicans,” Mr. Manley said. “I don’t know if that is possible.”

Still, Mr. Reid took to the Senate floor yesterday and implored Mr. Bush to sign the bill that is scheduled to reach the White House today, citing unyielding bloodshed in Iraq.

“There is still time to come to grips with the facts on the streets of Baghdad and throughout Iraq,” Mr. Reid said. “There is still time to sign this bill and change course in Iraq.”

Congressional Democrats say the troop-withdrawal plan answers the American people’s call to end the war.

The president and his Republican allies on Capitol Hill say a pullout timetable would hamstring U.S. commanders on the front lines and represent a declaration of surrender on the main battleground of the war on terror.

Mr. Bush again said he would veto the troop-withdrawal timetable that “imposes the judgment of people here in Washington on our military commanders and diplomats.”

He also criticized the $20 billion in domestic spending, including pork-barrel projects, included in the bill.

“I have made my position very clear, the Congress chose to ignore it, and so I will veto the bill,” Mr. Bush said at a White House press conference.

“That’s not to say that I’m not interested in their opinions I am,” he said. “I believe that there’s a lot of Democrats that understand that we need to get the money to the troops as soon as possible, and so I’m optimistic we can get something done in a positive way.”

The White House also questioned the delay in getting the bill without accusing the Democrat-controlled Congress of timing its arrival to coincide with the fourth anniversary of Mr. Bush’s aircraft carrier speech in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner.

“It’s now been passed for five days. We’re not quite sure why it’s been so difficult to convey it one mile up Pennsylvania Avenue, but we will get back to you when we know,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said.

Under the legislation that passed both chambers of Congress in near party-line votes, the troop withdrawal would commence July 1 if the Iraqi government does not meet certain policy benchmarks.

The benchmarks include reduced sectarian violence, the establishment of a militia-disarmament program and laws that share oil revenue among all Iraqi factions. If they satisfy the benchmarks, U.S. troops would start to pull out Oct. 1 with a goal of most troops coming home by April.

The Democratic strategy would limit combat operations by rolling back security patrols by the U.S. military in sectarian hot spots and by barring participation in the systematic search for insurgents tasks typically determined by commanders on the scene and Mr. Bush as the commander in chief.

Jon Ward contributed to this report.

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