Bush Invites Democrats to Discuss Iraq

By Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 11, 2007

President Bush invited lawmakers to the White House next week to try to break the stalemate on Iraq war funding, but he made it clear yesterday that he is not budging on his key demand -- a "clean" bill without "artificial deadlines" for withdrawal or restrictions on his commanders on the ground.

At the same time, Bush used a morning visit to American Legion Post 177 in Fairfax to renew pressure on Congress to send him the spending bill, warning that the Pentagon will soon be forced to transfer an additional $1.6 billion in funds from other military accounts to make up for a looming shortfall in funding for the Iraq operations. The appearance was another in a series of steps calculated at stiffening the spines of his conservative base for a coming confrontation with Democratic lawmakers.

"Democratic leaders in Congress are bent on using a bill that funds our troops to make a political statement about the war," Bush told the audience. "They need to do it quickly and get it to my desk so I can veto it, and then Congress can get down to the business of funding our troops without strings and without further delay."

Democratic leaders reacted coolly to the latest mix of overture and threat from the president, with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggesting they would not attend the White House meeting unless Bush dropped what they consider to be his preconditions.

"I've prided myself on being a pretty good trial lawyer," said Reid. "I've settled lots and lots of cases. But you never settle a case going in saying, 'You can come and meet with me, but here's what the result's going to be before we meet.' That doesn't work."

The standoff between Bush and Congress involves about $100 billion in funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both chambers have approved separate bills providing the funding, but the two bills also call for effectively shutting down the war in Iraq through timetables for withdrawal. The House bill calls for all combat troops to be removed by Aug. 31, 2008, while the Senate version calls for withdrawals to begin 120 days after passage of the bill, with a goal of pulling all troops out by March 31, 2008.

Bush has said he would veto either bill -- the two chambers must first reconcile their differences and send legislation to his desk -- and is calculating that he can keep enough Republicans in line to prevent the Democrats from assembling the two-thirds majority they need in both chambers to override a veto.

Toward that end, the White House has focused efforts in recent weeks on shoring up its backing among conservatives, who remain strongly supportive of the war effort despite its unpopularity among the broader electorate. Conservative leaders have been invited to the White House for private briefings, and presidential surrogates, including Vice President Cheney, have been dispatched to conservative talk radio and other venues.

With conservatives in mind, Bush is also increasingly complaining about spending provisions inserted by Democrats into the bills for non-war purposes. While Republicans did the same thing when they controlled the Congress, one senior administration official said the White House received a clear "lesson" from the midterm elections about how much conservatives dislike such "pork-barrel" spending. "This is right in our wheelhouse," said this official, who discussed strategy on the condition of anonymity.

Veterans groups are another key White House constituency, and the legionnaires gave Bush a standing ovation when he wrapped up his 37-minute speech in Fairfax yesterday. Several in the audience said they were particularly angry about the delays in war funding and extra projects added to Bush's original budget request.

"Mr. President," called out 91-year-old Lehman Young, a Navy veteran of World War II, as Bush worked the crowd following the speech. "Hats off to you," he yelled, doffing his cap and eliciting another round of clapping from the group.

The White House campaign seems to have had some impact both inside and outside the Beltway. Conservative radio host Tom Liddy of KKNT in Phoenix said most of the calls his station receives on the issue are from listeners who "just don't want the USA to surrender" because "they fear a slaughter in Iraq much like what followed the cutoff of funds in Southeast Asia."

And on Capitol Hill, the White House and its allies have so far succeeded in keeping most Republicans in line on the key votes. When Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.), a reliably conservative vote in the House, sided with Democrats on a nonbinding resolution opposing Bush's troop increases in Iraq, he said he was attacked fiercely by angry conservatives. On the war spending bill, he stuck with GOP leaders.

But some conservatives warn that the White House strategy is not without risk. Conservative activist and former presidential candidate Gary L. Bauer said the support from conservatives helps Bush "in these short-term battles and it buys him time, but I think he's aware that the clock is ticking here and in order to see this through, somehow they have got to find a way to get more of the Democratic Party to buy into their position. . . . You can't sustain it for a couple more years unless a higher percentage of the political elite and the country are on board."

Democratic aides are already discussing how to proceed once the expected presidential veto is issued. One idea with growing resonance would be quick passage of a war spending bill without conditions but with only enough funds for a few more months of war. Then negotiations over binding language to force a change in war policy would begin anew.

"With a little bit of ingenuity," Reid said yesterday, compromise is possible. He suggested leaving Special Operations forces in Iraq and setting up military bases in Kuwait or Jordan where counterterrorism operations and Iraqi military training could continue.

By appearing open to negotiations, Democratic leaders hope to raise the pressure on congressional Republicans to force Bush to the table. A small, informal group of House Republicans have begun meeting to share ideas on how to move the war spending bill forward, but participants, including Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee, say they have no intention of seeking compromise on the troop withdrawals or timelines to end the war. Still, some GOP aides close to the effort did say they want to bring members of both parties to the negotiating table.

"We do have to be talking," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.).

© 2007 The Washington Post Company