Democrats Would Make Iraq Timetable in Bill 'Advisory'

By Peter Baker and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 19, 2007

Congressional Democratic leaders are moving to make their proposed timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq "advisory" as they seek to reconcile two versions of war spending legislation into a single bill that they plan to pass next week, according to several House members.

The compromise language would keep the deadlines included in the original House bill but make them nonbinding, as the Senate version did, and would allow President Bush to waive troop-readiness standards, lawmakers said. Bush has vowed to veto legislation with timetables in it, calling it a schedule of surrender, but Democrats hope to show that they are being flexible and the president rigid by softening the terms. The compromises may cost Democrats votes among antiwar liberals, but they hope to pick up some Republicans.

The haggling between congressional Democrats came as their leaders met at the White House with Bush to try to hash out their dispute. Both sides termed it a polite, productive meeting in which they restated their positions but emerged without an agreement. Democrats promised to send Bush their bill next week.

"We believe he must search his soul, his conscience, and decide what is best for the American people," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters on the White House driveway. "I believe signing the bill is that."

White House spokeswoman Dana M. Perino said later that Bush has not changed his mind. But she expressed optimism that after a veto, Democrats would pass legislation without conditions to provide $100 billion to continue operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. "It was clear that ultimately there will be a bill that can fund the troops, that the troops will get the funds they need," Perino said.

Others were less certain. Asked if the meeting changed anything, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said flatly: "No."

Most of the talk appeared aimed at positioning for the next phase of the fight after a veto. One House Democrat said Congress might pass a 60-day spending bill without conditions for Bush to sign to keep troops funded while the debate continues. Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) said Democrats are treating June 1 as the final deadline for passage of a war-funding bill that would not be vetoed.

Much of yesterday's one-hour meeting in the Cabinet Room centered on benchmarks for Iraqis to meet, such as passing legislation to divide up oil revenue and tamp down sectarian violence. Bush assured congressional leaders that he believes in benchmarks and has been pressing Iraqi leaders to meet them. Democrats want to make the benchmarks binding.

Democrats cited the words of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who told reporters traveling with him in the Middle East that congressional demands for withdrawal have been constructive. "The strong feelings expressed in the Congress about the timetable probably has had a positive impact . . . in terms of communicating to the Iraqis that this is not an open-ended commitment," Gates said.

Democrats will face a new test of party unity today when the House names the negotiators who will quickly work out the final version of the war spending bill. House Republicans will call for a vote to instruct negotiators to strip out language imposing or suggesting timelines for withdrawing troops. The vote would be advisory only, but even Democratic leadership aides said passage would weaken their hand in the showdown.

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