By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 26, 2007
The House last night brushed aside weeks of angry White House rhetoric and veto threats to narrowly approve a $124 billion war spending bill that requires troop withdrawal from Iraq to begin by Oct. 1, with a goal of ending U.S. combat operations there by next March.
The Senate is expected to follow the House's 218 to 208 vote with final passage today, completing work on the rarest of bills: legislation to try to end a major war as fighting still rages. Democrats hope to send the measure to the White House on Monday, almost exactly four years after President Bush declared an end to major combat in a speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. That would be a particularly pungent political anniversary for Bush to deliver only the second veto of his presidency.
Last night's vote came after a fiery, partisan debate that has grown familiar after months of wrangling, first over a nonbinding resolution opposing Bush's troop increase, then over the largest war spending bill in U.S. history.
"How many more suicide bombs must kill American soldiers before this president offers a timeline for our troops to come home?" asked Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D-Pa.), a freshman Iraq war veteran who lost nine fellow paratroopers this week in one of the deadliest attacks of the war. "How many more military leaders must declare the war will not be won militarily before this president demands that the Iraqis stand up and fight for their country? How many more terrorists will President Bush's foreign policy breed before he focuses a new strategy, a real strategy? This bill says enough is enough."
"Every generation of Americans have had their obligation to stand up and protect their country, not just for today but for tomorrow and the next generation," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said. "We have a solemn obligation to the American people to finish the job we started."
Republicans stayed largely united, with only Reps. Wayne Gilchrest (Md.) and Walter Jones (N.C.), voting for the bill and Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (Mo.), voting present. Thirteen House Democrats -- seven conservatives and six liberals -- opposed the bill.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino fired off a statement saying, "Tonight, the House of Representatives votes for failure in Iraq, and the President will veto its bill."
But even House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) acknowledged a growing political strain as the bad news from Baghdad continues. "We need to get some better results from Iraq, both politically, economically and militarily in foreseeable future," he said.
Indeed, the vote came before a backdrop of troubling news. The administration dispatched Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to plead for patience as he briefed House and Senate lawmakers on efforts to quell sectarian and Islamic fundamentalist violence with the influx of more than 28,000 additional troops.
After the briefings, Petraeus met with reporters and described progress in Iraq as mixed. Sectarian slayings in Baghdad are down by a third since January, he said, and progress in the Sunni province of Anbar has been "almost something that's breathtaking," he said. On the other hand, he said, "the ability of al-Qaeda to conduct horrific, sensational attacks obviously have represented a setback."
Petraeus appeared to warn war opponents against intemperate comments, saying, "It is always helpful to remember the various audiences out there as this wonderful democratic process goes forward, and those are our partners, our allies, the enemy, and also frankly our men and women in uniform."
For Democrats, he elliptically echoed recent comments by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates when he suggested pressure from Washington may be helpful if broadly applied to the fragmented Iraqi government.
Petraeus's mixed assessment stood in contrast to a bleak quarterly report from the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, which declared that Iraq remains in the grip of a "breakdown in law and order" and faces a "rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis."
Beneath yesterday's political debate, halting talks have already begun on a second funding bill for the war, on the assumption Bush will veto the first.
The bill passed yesterday sets strict requirements for resting, training and equipping troops but would grant the president the authority to waive those restrictions, as long as he publicly justifies the waivers. The bill also establishes benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet: Create a program to disarm militias, reduce sectarian violence, ease rules that purged the government of all former Baath Party members and approve a law on sharing oil revenue.
Unless the Bush administration determines by July 1 that those benchmarks are being met, troops would begin coming home immediately, with a goal of completing those withdrawals by the end of the year. If benchmarks are being met, troops would begin coming home no later than Oct. 1, with a goal of completing the troop pullout by April 1.
After combat forces are withdrawn, some troops could remain to protect U.S. facilities and diplomats, pursue terrorist organizations, and train and equip Iraqi security forces.
Blunt said neither the president nor the vast majority of GOP lawmakers would ever accept restrictions on troop deployments or binding withdrawal dates. But, he said, Republicans would back the benchmarks. Rather than tying those measurements of progress to military consequences, he suggested linking them to the $5.7 billion in the bill for nonmilitary assistance to the Iraqi government.
Democrats do not want to offer anything up for negotiation as they pressure Bush to sign the bill as it stands. But the contours of the second bill are emerging. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) said yesterday that putting the force of law behind benchmarks has always been an issue that has divided congressional Republicans from the White House -- making it a potential wedge to push next week.
Other Democrats suggested the most contentious items in the bill, such as binding troop withdrawal dates, would probably migrate to a defense policy bill that will be on the House floor next month or to the annual Pentagon budget bill, due up in June.
But Democrats, from the party's conservative wing to its liberal left, said last night that they will not buckle to Bush's demand for war money with no policy strings attached. "He's not getting what he wants," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza (Calif.), a conservative "Blue Dog" Democrat.
To add pressure for a compromise, a coalition of liberal organizations, working in concert with Democratic leaders in Congress, is planning hundreds of rallies and dozens of news conferences to protest Bush's veto. Americans Against Escalation in Iraq is organizing what it anticipates will be a historically large outpouring of sentiment against the Iraq war within hours of the president's veto, with news conferences just after the veto and "signature rallies" -- some of which could draw thousands of people -- the next day in about 50 places represented by fence-sitting Republicans lawmakers.
Staff writer Jeffrey H. Birnbaum contributed to this report.