By Jonathan Weisman and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Congress and the White House will move this week toward a final showdown over a contested war funding bill, with most Americans trusting Democrats over President Bush to set Iraq policy but with sentiment deeply divided over Congress's push to set a deadline for withdrawing U.S. forces.
Democratic leaders will formally convene House and Senate negotiators tomorrow to hammer out a final version of the bill, hoping to have the compromise on Bush's desk by the end of next week. The president and Democratic leaders again exchanged verbal fire yesterday.
Bush used a backdrop of military families to declare: "We should not legislate defeat in this vital war." Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), flanked by retired Army generals, fired back: "The president and the vice president continue to desperately cling to their failed escalation strategy and attack those who disagree with them."
Democrats appear to be standing on firm political ground, as they work toward a final bill. A Washington Post-ABC News poll of 1,141 adults, conducted April 12-15, found that 58 percent trusted the Democrats in Congress to do a better job handling the situation in Iraq, compared with 33 percent who trusted Bush.
The president has taken advantage of Congress's spring recess to pound Democrats over their legislation, which would impose benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet; create strict rules for resting, equipping and training combat troops; and set a 2008 date for the final withdrawal of U.S. troops. Despite those efforts, Bush has lost a little ground to Democrats, who in February were trusted by 54 percent to set Iraq policy.
Pessimism about the war has continued to grow. For the first time, a narrow majority of Americans, 51 percent, said the United States will lose the battle, compared with 35 percent who said the United States will win.
Bush continued yesterday to say that victory in Iraq is pivotal to the larger fight against terrorism, but Americans are increasingly agreeing with the Democratic view that the issues are separate. About 57 percent now say the United States can succeed in the terrorism fight without winning the Iraq war, an increase of 10 percentage points since January, when Americans were almost evenly divided on the question.
The number of Americans who favor withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, even if that means civil order is not restored, held steady from February at 56 percent.
But Americans remain divided over specific policy changes. About 51 percent support legislation similar to the House bill, which would continue funding the war but would set a deadline of no later than August 2008 for the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces; 46 percent oppose such a bill.
While congressional Democrats fare better when compared with Bush, 62 percent of poll respondents disliked the way they have handled the situation in Iraq. Bush's disapproval rating on his handling of the war was 70 percent.
The strength of Democrats' positions comes in part because the president's overall job approval rating stands at 35 percent. A majority of Americans have not approved of Bush's job performance since January 2005, according to Post-ABC News polling.
With such uncertainties, Democratic aides and lawmakers acknowledged yesterday, reaching a final agreement in the coming days will be difficult. Leadership aides and lawmakers say negotiators are likely to accept language in the House bill requiring that troops be given a year off between combat tours, and those tours be limited to a year -- a mandate breached last week, when the administration announced that combat tours would be extended to 15 months. Under the bill, Bush could waive such mandates with a public explanation.
The final version is also expected to include House language that would establish binding benchmarks -- such as the passage of an oil-revenue-sharing law and the quelling of sectarian violence -- for the Iraqi government to meet to ensure full U.S. military support into next year.
But on troop-withdrawal language, negotiators are likely to bend toward the Senate bill, which says troop withdrawals must begin within 120 days after bill passage but sets a date of March 31, 2008, only as a goal for final withdrawals. The idea, aides said, is to show Democrats as willing to compromise with Bush and to make a veto more difficult to defend.
That strategy would make it hard for House Democratic leaders to round up the 218 votes for passage, said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), a member of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. About 40 antiwar Democrats reluctantly voted for the original House bill, even though they thought it was too weak.
"We had nothing to spare in the last vote," Moran said, "and a number of members have gone home who voted for it and who just heard from their base that they should have stuck with" the hard-line antiwar Democrats who voted against it.
Having gotten this far, Democratic leaders said yesterday that they are not about to let divisions in their party stop a bill from reaching the president. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) said the party is "on more than solid ground" for its push for binding benchmarks and troop-readiness standards, while "the American people have [Bush] on a mute button."
"We're going to get something through the House, through the Senate and to the president," he said. "Everyone knows failure is not an option here."
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.