Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Congressional Democrats yesterday backed down in the standoff with the White House over war funds, abandoning their veto-instigating effort to link deadlines for withdrawing troops from Iraq to President Bush’s request for more than $100 billion in emergency spending.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said the new measure will have benchmarks backed up by the threat of cutting off U.S. aid to Iraq — a concept Mr. Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi just days ago denounced as too weak.

Mr. Reid said it will be the first time Mr. Bush does not get a blank check for the war, but the concession caused consternation in the Democratic caucus and was called capitulation by the party’s war opponents. Even Mrs. Pelosi indicated she wouldn’t support it.

“It’s the president’s legislation, not the Democrats’,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, California Democrat and co-founder of the Out of Iraq Caucus. “It’s going to take Republicans to pass it.”

Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat and one of the chamber’s loudest antiwar voices, called the benchmarks “toothless.”

“There has been a lot of tough talk from members of Congress about wanting to end this war, but it looks like the desire for political comfort won out over real action,” he said.

The House is expected to vote on the bill, which is still being drafted, tomorrow, followed by a Senate vote that evening, completing the legislation before the Democrat-led Congress’ self-imposed deadline of May 28, when lawmakers take a weeklong Memorial Day recess.

“Democrats have finally conceded defeat in their effort to include mandatory surrender dates in a funding bill for the troops,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.

But the White House said Mr. Bush does not see the bill in “Capitol Hill terms” of winners and losers.

“What will be seen as a victory is providing … the funding and flexibility the forces need,” said White House spokesman Tony Snow. “That’s what we’ve wanted all along.”

The White House yesterday sought to bolster its war strategy by declassifying evidence showing that in 2005, Osama bin Laden ordered Abu Musab Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq before he was killed in a U.S. air strike in June, to plan attacks outside Iraq.

Frances Fragos Townsend, Mr. Bush’s homeland security adviser, said the information backs the administration’s assertion that U.S. troops must stay in Iraq for now to prevent it from becoming a “terrorist sanctuary,” Reuters news agency reported.

“The intelligence community tells us that in January 2005, bin Laden tasked Zarqawi … to form a cell to conduct attacks outside Iraq and that frankly America should be his [No. 1] priority,” she said, according to Reuters. “We know from the intelligence community that Zarqawi welcomed the tasking.”

House Democrats, meanwhile, were putting finishing touches on the funding measure last night, which is expected to include as many as 18 benchmarks to measure the Iraqi government’s progress toward national reconciliation, such as adopting laws to disarm militias, confer equal legal protections to all sects and share oil revenues among the Kurds, Shi’ites and Sunnis.

The president also will have to report to Congress on progress toward benchmarks, and he likely will have authority to waive the cut off of U.S. redevelopment aid to Iraq for failure to meet the benchmarks.

“There’s no cheering yet,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, adding that he was optimistic Democrats were finally ready to pass war funds “without surrender dates.”

Leaders from both parties said they expect to get enough votes to pass the measure, which pays for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer stressed that both sides made concessions and the leadership did what they had to do to fund combat troops before money runs out this summer.

“Obviously, both sides are in a position where neither can do something without the other,” the Maryland Democrat said. “That is the reality.”

Mrs. Pelosi last night said she was waiting to see the final bill, but that it was “not likely” she would vote for something that doesn’t have a timetable or a goal of bringing troops home.

Democratic leaders, who vowed to continue challenging war policy with the 2008 defense-spending bill, called the measure a compromise and highlighted its inclusion of the first minimum-wage increase in a decade and about $8 billion in domestic spending Mr. Bush had opposed, including more money for Hurricane Katrina recovery and an effort to keep children from falling off health care rolls.

The $124 billion measure is about $17 billion more than Mr. Bush originally requested in November. It includes about $9 billion for veterans affairs and defense measures.

But despite the domestic concessions by the White House, Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the feminist antiwar group Code Pink, blamed Democrats for “playing politics” with the war.

“They’ve caved in to pressure from the Bush administration and have violated the mandate they were given in November 2006,” she said. “They should have stood their ground.”

The compromise legislation described by Democrats was close to the deal offered Friday by Mr. Bush’s chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, and immediately rejected by Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Reid.

It mirrors an amendment by Republican Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia that was embraced by the chamber in a 52-44 vote last week — not the 60 votes needed to pass over a filibuster, but a significant show of bipartisan support.

The leadership’s change of heart helps avoid a repeat of the veto that sank a $124 billion bill Congress sent Mr. Bush last month with a timetable to withdrawal troops from Iraq as soon as July.

The president also said he would veto a separate bill the House passed May 10 that rationed war funds two months at a time and set up a possible August pullout.

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