- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2007

The Senate avoided the Iraq debate yesterday by moving the war-funding standoff behind closed doors for three-way negotiations with House leaders and the Bush administration.

The negotiations were initiated when the Senate voted 94-1 for a bill that pledged support for the troops, a measure sponsored by both parties’ leadership as a placeholder while the real bill is drafted in conference committee.

Shortly after the vote, President Bush’s chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, for the first time met simultaneously with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

“We’ll work through something we can all live with,” Mr. Bush told reporters at the White House.

The Democrat-led Congress is rushing to send the president a roughly $100 billion spending bill that he will sign before lawmakers take a weeklong Memorial Day recess beginning May 28.

Democratic leaders in both chambers are pushing for legislation that signals an end to the unpopular war in Iraq, but Mr. Bush has made it clear he will veto any bill that restricts war funds or dictates military strategy.

The president has said he will veto the bill passed last week by the House, which would ration funds two months at a time and set up a possible August troop withdrawal.

He vetoed the $124 billion bill Congress sent him last month with a timetable to pull out troops as soon as July and no later than October.

The bipartisan deal to move negotiations into the conference committee drew harsh criticism from Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who is a close anti-war ally of Mr. Reid’s.

“Ramming a symbolic bill through the Senate so that the actual bill can be written by a handful of people behind closed doors is unacceptable,” said Mr. Feingold, the lone vote against moving it to committee. “The first supplemental passed by Congress was a step forward, but I hope that whatever emerges from the upcoming conference will not be a step back.”

Mr. Reid said he would not back down from the party’s antiwar stance, despite the setback Wednesday when the chamber voted 67-29 to reject a bid to withdraw troops from Iraq and cut off of combat funds next year.

“The American people deserve to know that the Democrats’ commitment to bring this war to its responsible end has never been stronger,” he said on the Senate floor before the largely symbolic vote for the resolution in support of troops.

“And if enough of our Republican colleagues decide to join with us,” he said, “even the president of the United States will have to listen.”

The negotiations over funds to pay for the war until the end of the fiscal year are expected to continue for days.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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