By Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 29, 2007
In his most combative comments yet, President Bush mocked Democratic lawmakers yesterday for including a deadline for troop withdrawals and "pork" projects in an Iraq spending bill, declaring that "the American people will know who to hold responsible" if funding for the war stalls.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) shot back that Bush's vow to veto the spending bill carries its own cost. In a joint letter, they warned him against following "a political strategy that would needlessly delay funding for our troops."
"Calm down with the threats. There is a new Congress in town," Pelosi said at a Capitol Hill news conference. "We respect your constitutional role. We want you to respect ours."
As the two sides jabbed at each other, the Senate hurried to complete its $122 billion war spending measure, with a final vote on the package expected today. Republicans were unable to strike language setting a March 31, 2008, goal for the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq, but GOP leaders decided not to block the legislation. Its approval is now considered a foregone conclusion.
What comes next depends on whether Bush or the Democrats blink. As the House and the Senate advance toward negotiations on a final spending package, both Democratic leaders and the White House believe they hold strong positions. Bush expects Democrats to get blamed for delaying troop funding, while Reid and Pelosi think their position has widespread popular support, with polls showing voters growing increasingly unhappy about the course of the Iraq war.
Many Republicans are eager for Bush to veto the legislation, believing it could bolster him politically by reinforcing his role as commander in chief, while bringing about the Democrats' first public defeat on Iraq since they took control of Congress in January. Even GOP critics of Bush's Iraq record regard the Democratic withdrawal effort as overly meddlesome.
"The war will be funded," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told CNN yesterday morning. "And we will give these young people a chance to succeed, not a signal that we're going to depart at a certain date and divorce totally from reality on the ground."
In a speech to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Bush said "members of Congress need to stop making political statements and start providing vital funds for our troops. They need to get that bill to my desk so I can sign it into law."
Although Democratic leaders said they still hope to negotiate a final war spending bill that the president could sign, they now view a presidential veto as unavoidable. To prepare, they are studying the events of 1995 and 1996, when President Bill Clinton vetoed appropriations bills and then successfully blamed Congress for shutting down the government.
Conservative Democrats also discussed alternatives for providing troop funding, if the standoff proves to be prolonged. For instance, Reps. Dennis Cardoza (Calif.) and Mike Ross (Ark.) suggested that the war funding be parceled out in three-month increments to force Bush to keep coming back for more.
Yet Democrats warned that they are not ready to compromise on their central dispute with Bush: that U.S. combat troop withdrawals should begin this year and conclude in 2008. The Senate bill set the goal of removing combat troops within a year, although some forces would be allowed to remain to conduct security, training and counterterrorism missions. The House bill would set a firm Aug. 31, 2008, date for complete withdrawal, with narrow exceptions.
"This war without end has gone on far too long," Pelosi said, "and we are here to end it."
Inside the White House, Bush strategists hope that the Democrats will overplay their hand, as the Republicans themselves did a decade ago. "This is in some ways a replay of the government shutdown," agreed one White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy. "The Republicans overreached at that point. I think that the Democrats will overreach [now]. We'll see."
Bush criticized yesterday the $20 billion in domestic spending that was added to the Senate bill. The nonmilitary spending includes $1.6 billion for flood and storm damage relief along the Gulf Coast, $2 billion to cover crop losses, $25 million for drought assistance, $820 million for low-income heating subsidies, and $75 million to repair the failing computer system at the Farm Service Agency.
"You know, all these matters may be important matters," Bush told the cattlemen. "They don't need to be loaded on to a bill that is an emergency spending bill for our troops."
"Not true," responded Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who called the spending package "a balanced bill that meets the needs of our people." Addressing Bush on the Senate floor, she said: "You're getting $102 billion" in military funding. "How about $20 billion for the needs here at home?"
One provision targeted by critics involves $100 million to pay for security at the 2008 Republican and Democratic conventions. Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) defended the sum, calling the GOP convention in Minneapolis a "national security event."
Bush singled out $6.4 million in the House bill for House salaries and expense accounts. "I don't know what that is," the president said to laughter, "but it is not related to the war and protecting the United States of America."
The funds are actually for a highly classified upgrade of Capitol security that has been underway since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Bush also ridiculed a provision to conduct tours of the Capitol, another opportunity to jab at Congress. "There's $3.5 million for visitors to tour the Capitol and see for themselves how Congress works," Bush said, drawing laughter from the crowd. "I'm not kidding you."
Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.