By Peter Baker and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 30, 2007
Faced with his second rebuke in a week from congressional Democrats on Iraq policy, President Bush yesterday summoned Republican allies to his side in an effort to shift momentum in the escalating battle over the course of the war.
Bush, who has alienated many Republicans on Capitol Hill, invited the entire House GOP caucus to the White House for the first time in his presidency. The meeting came on the same day that the Senate gave final approval to a $122 billion war spending bill that calls for the withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Iraq by March 31, 2008.
The White House gathering was designed to emphasize Bush's promise to veto any bill limiting his ability to prosecute the war and to reassure Republicans, many of whom have expressed weariness with defending his war policies. As long as Republican lawmakers stick with the president, Democrats will be unable to muster the two-thirds majorities they would need to override his veto.
"We stand united in saying loud and clear that when we've got a troop in harm's way, we expect that troop to be fully funded," Bush, surrounded by GOP lawmakers, said on the North Portico of the White House. "And we've got commanders making tough decisions on the ground. We expect there to be no strings on our commanders."
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said it is Bush who would pay the price if a veto fight slowed down funding for the military, including billions of dollars for veterans' health care and other benefits. "If the president vetoes this bill, it is an asterisk in history," Reid said. "He sets the record of undermining the troops more than any president we've ever had."
Reid pushed the war spending bill through on a largely party-line 51 to 47 vote yesterday. The measure would fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan but also require Bush to begin withdrawing combat troops from Iraq within four months, with the goal of a pullout by the end of next March.
The bill includes billions of dollars for domestic priorities, such as Hurricane Katrina aid and agricultural disaster relief, as well as $100 million for security at the 2008 Republican and Democratic conventions -- a widely mocked provision that critics tried to strike from the measure.
The dueling events on opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue left the executive and legislative branches hurtling toward a high-stakes collision, with neither side showing signs of backing down. Both sides, in fact, appear to be relishing the confrontation to some extent, gambling that they can outmaneuver the other, galvanize the most passionate forces within their parties, win over public opinion and force an eventual resolution on their terms.
In appearing with Republican lawmakers yesterday, Bush was following a tactic employed by President Bill Clinton during his own moment of political peril. On the day he was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice in the Monica S. Lewinsky case in 1998, Clinton summoned the entire House Democratic caucus to the White House to dispel the impression that the incident had left him isolated politically.
Although many Republicans in Congress harbor deep doubts about the president's course in Iraq, they have backed him so far by voting against Democratic proposals to change direction. Just two Senate Republicans voted for the spending-and-pullout measure yesterday: Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and Gordon Smith (Ore.).
Bush spent much of the closed-door meeting with House Republicans pressing an issue that many conservatives have already latched on to as a unifying force -- the pork-barrel spending, unrelated to the war, in the bill. At one point, Bush asked House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) if he could rally his troops to sustain a veto on the spending issue alone, even if Democrats stripped out language on troop withdrawals. When Boehner turned to his colleagues to ask if they would stay with Bush, they gave him a standing ovation.
But two Republican lawmakers, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be frank about a private meeting, said the session was more than a pep rally. Bush spent much of his talk stressing that he still believes in the ideals of freedom and democracy for Iraq, they said, and he exhorted lawmakers to disregard the polls and the editorial pages that have scoffed at those notions.
While many Republicans cheered the president, others sat skeptically silent, the two lawmakers said. As one put it, when Republicans in difficult swing districts lose a tough election, lawmakers can stay with the president and his policy. But now, Democrats are targeting Republican veterans, such as Reps. C.W. Bill Young (Fla.) and Ralph Regula (Ohio), largely over their Iraq votes.
"When guys like that have a big target on their back, everyone starts to worry," said one congressman.
Democrats also put on a show of unity, joining without dissent for the first time in the Senate vote.
Before Bush can veto the bill, Democrats must produce a final version -- a potentially tricky exercise, given the wide-ranging views within the party. Antiwar Democrats in the House, who want troops withdrawn as soon as possible, are already balking at the weaker Senate language, which sets a goal rather than a firm pullout deadline of Aug. 31, 2008, as the House version does. Some Senate Democrats said they will resist the House's hard deadline.
But Congress now leaves town for a recess, with the House not returning until April 16.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a House panel that a delay in funding would force the Army to curtail training and equipment repair necessary to prepare units for deployment, which could lead forces now in Iraq and Afghanistan to have their tours lengthened.
If the funds do not arrive in time, the Army will have to cut spending on National Guard, reserve and active units at home to give priority to soldiers fighting overseas, according to Pace and senior Army officials.
Staff writers Jonathan Weisman and Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.