By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 24, 2007 4:22 PM
Stepping into an increasingly personal dispute over a crucial war-funding bill, President Bush today denounced congressional Democrats for approving legislation that contains a timetable for bringing U.S. combat forces home from Iraq, and he repeated his vow to veto it on grounds that it would "embolden our enemies," undermine troops in the field and threaten Americans' safety at home.
In a somber statement on the South Lawn of the White House before leaving on a trip to New York, Bush said he was willing to meet with Democratic leaders "as many times as it takes to resolve our differences," but he signaled no intention to compromise with them on the funding bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Later, Vice President Cheney and Democratic leaders traded barbs over the $124 billion emergency war-funding bill, a day after Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) described Cheney as the Bush administration's "chief attack dog" against the Democrats' plan to end the war in Iraq. Reid said yesterday that Cheney lacks credibility and has offered "wildly irresponsible and inaccurate attacks on us and our strategy."
Cheney today said Reid's comments were "uninformed and misleading" and accused him of "defeatism" on Iraq.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) called Cheney's attacks on Reid "as disturbing as they are disingenuous" and dismissed the vice president as "the American Idol of outlandish claims."
Separately, Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) urged Bush to face reality and reconsider his veto threat.
Bush spoke a day after House and Senate negotiators reached agreement on legislation that would provide $95.5 billion for the wars this year -- $4 billion more than Bush requested -- but would also set timetables for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq tied to the Iraqi government's progress in meeting a series of economic, political and military benchmarks. Regardless of Iraqi compliance, the bill calls for beginning the "phased redeployment" of U.S. forces out of Iraq no later than Oct. 1, with a goal of ending U.S. combat operations in Iraq by April 1, 2008.
Democratic negotiators on the House-Senate conference committee removed some funding items that had come under heavy criticism, but their final version of the bill still contains billions of dollars in appropriations unrelated to the wars, including $3.5 billion in domestic agricultural assistance. It also includes $1.8 billion for veterans' health care that Bush had not requested and $2 billion more than the White House wanted for homeland security.
"Yesterday, Democratic leaders announced that they plan to send me a bill that will fund our troops only if we agree to handcuff our generals, add billions of dollars in unrelated spending and begin to pull out of Iraq by an arbitrary date," Bush said. "I'm disappointed that the Democratic leadership has chosen this course. The bill they announced yesterday includes some of the worst parts of the measures they had earlier passed with narrow majorities in the House and the Senate."
However, a group of retired generals who have criticized Bush's conduct of the war released statements today applauding the supplemental appropriations bill, calling it the best way to show real support for U.S. troops.
"The bill gives the president a chance to pull back from a disastrous course, reorient U.S. strategy to achieve regional stability, and win help from many other countries -- the only way peace will eventually be achieved," said retired Army Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, a former director of the National Security Agency during the Reagan administration. His and other flag officers' statements on the congressional action were distributed by the National Security Network, a Washington-based group that advocates what it calls "progressive national security policy solutions."
Reid responded to Bush's comments by charging that "the president apparently remains in a dangerous state of denial about the situation on the ground in Iraq and its impact on our security at home."
Bush said congressional Democrats know he will veto the bill and that his veto will be sustained, but that they "chose to further delay funding our troops" and "make a political statement."
He charged that the bill "would undermine our troops and threaten the safety of the American people here at home." Just as the al-Qaeda terrorist network used Afghanistan as a base to plan the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he argued, "al-Qaeda could make Iraq a base to plan even more deadly attacks" if U.S. troops pulled out.
Marshaling arguments he has deployed repeatedly in the past, Bush said such a move "would embolden our enemies and confirm their belief that America is weak. It could unleash chaos in Iraq that could spread across the entire region. It would be an invitation to the enemy to attack America and our friends around the world."
Although Democratic conferees removed "some of the most egregious pork-barrel projects" that had been included in earlier versions, Bush said, the proposed legislation "still includes huge amounts of domestic spending that has no place in an emergency war funding bill."
He acknowledged that "Americans have serious concerns about this war" and "want our troops to come home," adding, "and so do I." But he argued that "no matter how frustrating the fight can be, and no matter how much we wish the war was over, the security of our country depends directly on the outcome in Iraq."
Bush added, "It would be an unforgivable mistake for leaders in Washington to allow politics and impatience to stand in the way of protecting the American people."
He asserted that he "listened" last November when American voters "said they were frustrated and wanted change in our strategy in Iraq," electing Democratic majorities in the House and Senate for the first time in a dozen years.
"Yet the American people did not vote for failure," Bush said. "And that is precisely what the Democratic leadership's bill would guarantee."
He said it was "not too late for Congress to do the right thing" and send him a war-funding bill without withdrawal timetables.
"I'm willing to meet with leaders in Congress as many times as it takes to resolve our differences," he said. "Yet if the Democratic leaders insist on using the bill to make a political statement, they will leave me with only one option: I will veto it. And then I'll work with Congress to pass a clean bill that funds our troops without handcuffing our commanders, spending billions of dollars unrelated to the war and forcing our nation to withdraw on the enemy's terms."
Bush made the remarks in a brief speech before boarding his Marine One helicopter on the first leg of a trip to Harlem to talk about his No Child Left Behind policy. Bush is also scheduled to attend a Republican National Committee fundraising dinner at a private residence in New York this evening before returning to Washington.
He took no questions from reporters after delivering his statement.
In a statement following Bush's comments, Reid said, "Although the president rightly stated that the American people voted against failure in Iraq last November, they also clearly voted against a policy that is leading us to failure -- and that's what the president's stay the course strategy does."
Citing the deaths of 10 more service members yesterday "in one of the deadliest days of this war," he said Bush "continues to offer more of the same: a failed policy that has our troops mired in an open-ended civil war that risks our security at home."
He later called the supplemental spending bill "a good piece of legislation, telling reporters, "I would hope the president would stop being so brusque and waving it off. . . . The president should look at this piece of legislation and sign it."
In a statement he read to reporters after a lunch with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill, Cheney disputed several of Reid's statements Monday in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington.
"What's most troubling about Senator Reid's comments yesterday is his defeatism," Cheney said. "Indeed, last week he said the war is already lost. And the timetable legislation that he is now pursuing would guarantee defeat."
The vice president added, "It is cynical to declare that the war is lost because you believe it gives you political advantage. Leaders should make decisions based on the security interests of our country, not on the interests of their political party."
In response to Cheney's attack, Kerry said in a statement, "No one has been more wrong about Iraq from day one than Vice President Cheney. The Cheney Doctrine has been a recipe for disaster in Iraq that has put American troops in unforgivable danger and made America less secure."
Saying he could not believe Cheney's audacity in calling Reid uninformed, Kerry declared, "This is the same man who claimed that we would be greeted as liberators in Iraq and that the Iraqi insurgency was in its last throes, when in fact the civil war was growing. It is time for the vice president to return to his secure, undisclosed location to rejoin his neocon friends rather than attack the majority leader who is fighting to keep faith with American troops."
Pelosi said in a news briefing, "Our bill is grounded in the realities in the war in Iraq" and deals with "the strain that this war is placing on our military." She said Bush's response to it reflects an administration "in disarray."
The House speaker also criticized Bush for repeatedly demanding funds for the war through emergency supplementals rather than the regular budget. "Seven supplementals, seven times unprepared?" she asked. "I don't think so. I think it's seven times that the president wanted to hide the truth of the cost of this war from the American people."
Among the retired generals who commended the war-funding bill was Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who formerly commanded the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq.
"This important legislation sets a new direction for Iraq," Batiste said in a statement. "It acknowledges that America went to war without mobilizing the nation, that our strategy in Iraq has been tragically flawed since the invasion in March 2003, that our Army and Marine Corps are at the breaking point with little to show for it, and that our military alone will never establish representative government in Iraq. The administration got it terribly wrong, and I applaud our Congress for stepping up to their constitutional responsibilities."
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who was in charge of training the Iraqi military from 2003 to 2004, said, "The argument that this bill aides the enemy is simply not mature." He said it gives the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, "great leverage for moving the Iraqi government" toward political compromises aimed at undercutting the insurgency.
"We must commence a coordinated phased withdrawal of U.S. combat troops and condition our continuing support of the Iraqi government on its fulfilling the political commitments it has made to facilitate reconciliation of the contending secular factions," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Robert G. Gard Jr., a former senior Pentagon official. "Otherwise, we will continue to be entwined in a hopeless quagmire, with continuing American casualties, which will render our ground forces ineffective."
Retired Army National Guard Maj. Gen. Mel Montano, a former adjutant general of New Mexico, said the bill "not only reflects the thinking of the Iraq Study Group but puts teeth to the phrase 'Supporting the Troops.' " He said establishing timelines "returns the responsibility of self-preservation and regional sovereignty to the people of Iraq and their government."