- The Washington Times - Friday, May 11, 2007

The House last night ignored a veto threat and passed a bill to ration war funds, hours after President Bush for the first time offered to negotiate Iraq benchmarks with the Democrat-led Congress.

The bill, which would fund the war in two-month installments and sets up a possible troop withdrawal in August, passed in a 221-205 vote, with Democrats backing the bill by 219-10 and Republicans opposed by 195-2.

A separate House bill for a prompt troop pullout died on a 255-171 vote, significantly more support than expected, with 169 Democrats and two Republicans, voting for the immediate pullout and sending a loud message to Mr. Bush.

The president rejected the fund-rationing scheme as “haphazard, piecemeal funding” and vowed to veto it, as he did last week to a $124 billion bill with a timetable to withdrawal troops as soon as July.

But in an about-face from his demand for war funds free of conditions or restrictions, Mr. Bush agreed to consider a bill that measures Iraqi progress, such as reducing sectarian violence, establishing a militia-disarmament program and enacting laws to share oil revenue.

“One message I have heard from people from both parties is that the idea of benchmarks makes sense — and I agree,” Mr. Bush said at the Pentagon after meeting with top military strategists.

He said he charged White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten, who has spearheaded war-funding negotiations with Congress, to “find common ground on benchmarks.”

But the concession did little to close the gulf separating the White House and Congress because Democrats want benchmarks that include mandatory consequences if they are not met, something the Bush administration is expected to resist.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he welcomed the president’s change of heart, but he wants the end of combat operations.

“Democrats remain united in our efforts to change course in Iraq and enact a strategy that makes America more secure,” the Nevada Democrat said. “A bipartisan majority of Congress has already concluded that we need more than simple benchmarks without any consequences to accomplish this goal.”

House Majority Leader John A. Boehner said he and other Republicans have long supported setting benchmarks but oppose using them to choke off war funds or force a precipitous troop withdrawal.

He compared policy benchmarks for Iraq to the sales goals he set when he owned a packaging business in his home state of Ohio.

“If I didn’t meet the benchmark, I didn’t close down my business. I didn’t lock the door,” he said. “I’d try harder. I’d change strategy. … I’d find some way to make adjustments to meet those goals.”

The House-passed bill would release $30 billion for combat operations until July 31. Mr. Bush would have to report on progress made in Iraq by July 13 before Congress votes whether to dole out $50 billion more to keep the troops fighting until Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, called the bill a “path to stability in the Middle East” and a path home for U.S. troops.

“I don’t know why the president doesn’t understand this war cannot proceed indefinitely,” she said during floor debate. “We owe it to the American people to find common ground so we can end this war.”

But the 221-205 vote fell far short of the two-thirds majority Democrats would need to override a veto. Most of the 10 Democrats who voted against it are members of the Out of Iraq Caucus, which wants an immediate withdrawal and opposes any war funding.

The measure also will have to merge with a Senate bill expected to contain softer restrictions. A Senate vote could come as early as next week as Congress rushes to send the president a final bill before its weeklong Memorial Day recess at the end of this month.

In a parallel action in Baghdad yesterday, radical Shi’ite politicians pressed for legislation to set a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal.

The proposed Iraqi legislation, drafted by the parliamentary bloc loyal to anti-American Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, was signed by 144 members of the 275-member house, parliamentary officials said. Although it is unlikely to pass, this would be the first time the Sadrist bloc mustered a majority of lawmakers for such a measure.

The support reflected growing disenchantment among the lawmakers over U.S. involvement in Iraq and the failure to curb the violence in Iraq, where 35 persons were killed or found dead nationwide yesterday.

In Washington, Democrats took credit for pressuring Mr. Bush to change his position on benchmarks. White House press secretary Tony Snow said the president’s stance was not new, citing the benchmarks outlined in the State of the Union speech.

“What we’re not going to do is do the negotiating for [Mr. Bolten], but he’s talking with people,” he said.

He also declined to discuss consequences for the benchmarks, saying, “I’m not even going to bite on that.”

The administration’s policy shift came two days after a group of Republicans from more-liberal districts told Mr. Bush that he will lose their support if the current troop surge in Baghdad did not produce results by September.

The president yesterday defended the mounting 40,000-troop surge to secure Baghdad. Three brigades have arrived, the fourth has just entered the city, and the fifth will arrive in mid-June.

He said Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, needs three months to make the plan work.

“What we need to give General Petraeus is plenty of time to work,” Mr. Bush told reporters. “This debate raging in Washington about how long we’re going to be there — we haven’t even got all our troops there.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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