By Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 9, 2007
Bush administration officials escalated the fight over a new spending package for the Iraq war yesterday, saying for the first time that the president will veto a House Democratic plan because it includes a timetable to start bringing troops home within a year and would undermine military efforts.
The veto threat came as House and Senate Democrats announced aggressive new measures to narrow U.S. involvement in Iraq, although party leaders acknowledged that their members are far from united on the efforts. Liberals want to start troop withdrawals immediately, but more conservative members worry that they are micromanaging the war, and House leaders have been struggling to come up with a compromise.
The House spending bill could lead to troop withdrawals before the end of the year and would end combat duties by Aug. 31, 2008. To help win votes in both parties, Democratic leaders have included billions of dollars in new spending for military health care and would redirect some money to the fight in Afghanistan.
In the Senate, Democratic leaders proposed a joint resolution, intended for consideration in the House as well, that would limit the authority Congress gave President Bush in 2002 to invade Iraq. It would require that troops start returning home within four months of passage and sets March 31, 2008, as a goal for withdrawing most troops. But it would require Republican votes to overcome parliamentary obstacles from GOP leaders.
That has left the fate of both measures far from certain. What is more, although public support for the war has plummeted, Republicans have remained remarkably united behind Bush and an open-ended Iraq commitment.
White House counselor Dan Barlett told reporters aboard Air Force One, as the president left for a six-day trip to Latin America, that the House's $105 billion spending package is tailored more to solving infighting among Democrats over how to proceed on the war than in helping troops on the ground.
"It's safe to say it's a nonstarter for the president," Bartlett said.
But Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has been in negotiations with divergent House factions all week, was dismissive of Bush's threat. "Never confine your best work, your hopes, your dreams, the aspirations of the American people to what will be signed by George W. Bush, because that is too limiting a factor," she said.
In the Senate, the challenge will be to overcome Republican parliamentary obstacles that will force Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to find 60 votes in a chamber he controls by a 51 to 49 margin. When Reid went to the floor yesterday evening to introduce the resolution, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was ready with an objection, to slow the debate before if starts.
Democrats hope to thwart the GOP strategy by granting votes on three Republican alternative measures. "We sincerely hope, this time, when we are offering the amendments, which they have asked for before, that they will join us in a bipartisan debate, one that America is ready for," Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said.
Despite the obstacles ahead, both Democratic efforts represent an unprecedented attempt to change the course of the conflict, entering its fifth year. Democratic unity is not absolute, especially in the House, where the antiwar left wants to take tougher steps, and conservative Democrats would prefer to tread more carefully. But when Reid unveiled the resolution yesterday, he was flanked by colleagues from both the left and right in his party.
"I look forward to even stronger steps," said Sen. Russell Feingold (Wis.), a leading antiwar Democrat. "But this is a major moment in the history of ending the Iraq war."
Under the House plan, Congress would institute the same tough benchmarks for the Iraqi government that Bush detailed in a national address in January. The president would have to certify by July 1 that the Iraqi government had made progress toward those goals. If he could not, troops would begin withdrawing, with all troops out of combat by year's end. If Bush could certify progress, he would have until Oct. 1 to certify that all of the benchmarks had been met. If they had not, troops would have to be withdrawn by March.
Whatever happened with the benchmarks, troop withdrawals would have to begin by March 1, 2008, under the House bill, and all troops would be out of combat roles by Aug. 31.
Despite the continued Democratic squabbling, Pelosi enjoys an important piece of leverage: money. At stake are billions for military health care and housing, homeland security, Gulf Coast hurricane relief and agriculture assistance.
Republicans denounced that as crass vote buying, while conceding it could prove hard to leave such perks on the table. "It's worked in the past," Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said.
GOP leaders tried to keep the debate focused on Iraq policy, saying the House proposal would restrict commanders on the ground. "Arbitrary timelines are little more than a road map for the terrorists, a tool they'll use to plot their maneuvers against American men and women in uniform," Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said.
Other Republicans warned that the Democratic proposals are reckless, lending "encouragement to our enemies in this battle of wills," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a leading Bush ally.
Some Democrats voiced their own concerns. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), a retired admiral and Iraq war veteran, worried that military commanders would try to spare Bush the need to invoke a waiver to deploy troops deemed not fully ready, leading to unnecessary training, for instance.
Rep. Jim Cooper (Tenn.), a leading conservative Democrat, fretted about the timetable. "My personal opinion is, deadlines are not a good idea," Cooper complained. But Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), an antiwar liberal, said she could not accept legislation that gives Bush too much latitude. "They're asking me to trust the president of the United States, who everybody agrees has mismanaged, misled and lied to us," she said.
Similar concerns were raised in the Senate, as Democratic leaders have worked through at least three drafts over the past two weeks. The provisions did not change much from the original draft, written by Armed Services Chairman Carl M. Levin (Mich.) and Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) But the language did. For instance, the word "reauthorizing" was stricken at the insistence of Feingold, who had voted against the 2002 resolution, and wanted to avoid the appearance of granting permission now.
The biggest sticking point in the Senate is likely to be the March 31, 2008, date for withdrawal. It is presented as a goal, and it matches the timeframe set by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which issued lengthy recommendations on war policy in December.
But some conservative Democrats said they are reluctant to sign on to any measure that could be construed as limiting Bush's options. "I'm bothered by dates," Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said. "I think you still have to go on conditions for staying."