By Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Unwilling to do the White House's heavy lifting on Iraq, Senate Republicans are prepared to step aside to allow language requiring troop withdrawals to reach President Bush, forcing him to face down Democratic adversaries with his veto pen.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) announced the shift in strategy yesterday, as the chamber took up a $122 billion war spending package that includes a target date of March 31, 2008, for ending most U.S. combat operations in Iraq. The provision, along with a similar House effort, represents the Democrats' boldest challenge on the war, setting the stage for a dramatic showdown with Bush over an otherwise popular bill to keep vital military funds flowing.
Republicans will still attempt to remove the deadline in a Senate vote expected as soon as today, and GOP leaders were reasonably confident they would muster a majority. But the margin is expected to be thin, requiring the presence of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had skipped several previous Iraq votes to attend presidential campaign events. McCain canceled a series of fundraisers and meetings in Florida to return to Washington, telling a conservative radio program that he wanted to "beat back this recipe for defeat that the Democrats are trying to foist off on the American people."
No matter the outcome of the Senate vote, McConnell is looking ahead, assuming House Democrats will insist that withdrawal conditions be included when a final bill is sent to Bush. If so, McConnell said, Republicans would forgo the parliamentary tactics they used to block antiwar legislation that had forced Democrats to amass an insurmountable 60 votes to prevail.
"We need to get the bill on down to the president and get the veto out of the way," McConnell said.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino reiterated yesterday Bush's strong opposition to the Senate plan. "We would object to people taking out flexibility for commanders on the ground," she said. Referring to additional sweeteners in the bill, to make it more attractive to individual senators, she added: "And we also object to extra domestic spending that is used to buy votes in order to get to a simple majority vote that is not going to be able to sustain a veto."
As the Senate debate began, Democrats reveled in new evidence suggesting that the party has strong public support for setting an end date. A new Pew Research Center poll found that 59 percent of people surveyed want their congressional representative to support a bill calling for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq by August 2008, the deadline set in the House version of the spending bill, which passed by a 218 to 212 vote on Friday. Thirty-three percent of respondents said they wanted their representative to oppose it.
"The Democratic-controlled Congress is listening to the American people," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). Democrats could have raised procedural objections, forcing Republicans to find 60 votes to strike the withdrawal language. Reid, like McConnell, did not want to slow the process, but he also sought to put his Republican colleagues on the spot. "He wants every senator on the record," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said.
Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.), the senior Republican on the Appropriations Committee and sponsor of the amendment to strike the withdrawal provision, said he hopes the GOP strategy will induce the White House and Democrats to begin final negotiations sooner. He also acknowledged the political peril Republicans face every time they are required to vote in defense of an increasingly unpopular war.
"We're part of the problem if this doesn't work," Cochran said. Ultimately, Iraq is Bush's battle, he said, and both parties are taking a risk by interfering. "Let him and the commanders in the field figure out a way to win," Cochran said.
Cochran's amendment would remove language that sets the withdrawal goal of March 31, 2008, while requiring troops to begin leaving Iraq within four months of enactment. But it would leave in place a set of nonbinding benchmarks for the Iraqi government that were added last week to win over Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), a conservative Democrat.
The benchmarks, originally proposed by the administration, are widely supported in the Senate, including by many of Bush's allies on the war. "They're a message, but they're not tied to a deadline," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), a staunch war supporter.
War critics are considering other Senate amendments, including a joint effort by Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and James Webb (D-Va.) aimed at setting conditions for future troop deployments.
"We have clearly a situation where the president has lost the confidence of the American people in his war effort," Hagel said Sunday on the ABC show "This Week." With the war now in its fifth year, he said, "it is now time . . . for the Congress to step forward and be part of setting some boundaries and some conditions as to our involvement."
In the House, Republicans were able to stay unified last week, largely because they believed they had kept the focus on the troops, not on the president. Just two Republicans, Reps. Wayne T. Gilchrest (Md.) and Walter B. Jones (N.C.), voted for the Democrats' $124 billion war spending bill, which sets a firm deadline of Aug. 31, 2008, for the removal of combat troops.
But one House lawmaker with close ties to GOP leaders said the outcome would have been considerably different if Republicans thought that they were simply defending the administration.
"We have toed the line enough for the president, and we have gotten no thanks or gratitude. By and large, Republicans are sick of defending an ungrateful president," the Republican House member said.
Sensing that frustration, Bush invited all House Republicans to come to the White House on Thursday. A House GOP leadership aide said the president hopes to thank Republicans for opposing the Iraq spending bill and to deliver a pep talk before members head to their districts for a two-week spring recess.
But that resolve may not hold. Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), who will be one of his party's negotiators as House and Senate appropriators sit down to hash out a compromise spending bill, suggested that a final version could include language similar to the Senate's version setting goals for withdrawal without strict time limits.
What Republicans do not want is a presidential veto, Wamp said. That political showdown could harm the standing of both parties while dealing a real blow to the war effort.
"This is a time when we need to find a way to come together through this conference committee and find a way where the country can unite again," Wamp said. "We need to respect each other's opinions, and we need to avoid a presidential veto."
Staff writers Peter Baker and Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.