By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 26, 2007 5:46 PM
The Senate today approved an Iraq spending bill that would force troop withdrawals to begin as early as July 1, dismissing President Bush's veto threat even as party leaders and the White House launch talks on the next phase of the increasingly high-stakes war debate.
The 51-46 vote was a triumph for Democrats, who just weeks ago had questioned the political wisdom of a veto showdown over Iraq with the commander-in-chief. But Democrats are hesitant no more. And now that withdrawal language has passed both houses of Congress, even Republicans concede that Bush won't get the spending bill with no strings attached as he has demanded.
Bush is expected to veto the bill early next week, but in the meantime, bipartisan negotiations have already started on phase two. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) spoke with Bush today as well as holding an initial meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) Senior Democratic and Republican senators are circulating alternatives that are meeker than the binding withdrawal terms approved by the Senate but that still restrain how Bush conducts the war.
Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), a critic of Bush's war policy who opposed the Democratic bill, conceded that pressure is building for Republicans and Democrats to reach a bipartisan consensus. One unhelpful development: the Iraqi parliament's intention to recess for two months this summer. That news appeared to bolster resolve among lawmakers to at least retain the bill's Iraqi government benchmarks, as a way of urging political and diplomatic progress.
The recess "would send a very bad signal to the world that they don't have the resolve that matches the resolve of the brave troops that are fighting in the battle today," said Warner, a supporter of benchmarks who said he has his own compromise plan in the works.
The most controversial provision in the $124 billion spending package, narrowly approved by the House last night, would begin troop withdrawals as early as July 1 and no later than Oct. 1, with a goal of returning most forces within a year. Another sticking point is the $21 billion of domestic spending in the bill, ridiculed by Bush and some Republicans as unnecessary pork.
But other elements in the legislation, including the benchmarks, are supported by a significant number of Republicans -- possibly enough to override a second veto.
Republicans signaled today that they are ready to negotiate. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said the veto "will give us a chance to sit down with our colleagues across the aisle and find common ground." McConnell said his goal was to produce a bill "without withdrawal dates, without pork."
"There are a number of members of my conference who do think that benchmarks could be helpful, depending upon how they're crafted," said McConnell. "And that'll be among the many items we discuss in moving forward."
The Democrats' legislative victory opens the door to complicated new challenges. House and Senate leaders must craft terms that are tough enough to satisfy a large anti-war faction, particularly in the House. At the same time, they must water down the bill to a point where Bush will sign it -- or risk the political fallout of failing to fund troops on the battlefield.
The White House argues that Democrats are endangering American troops. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino called the bill "defeatist legislation that insists on a date for surrender, micromanages our commanders and generals in combat zones from 6,000 miles away, and adds billions of dollars in spending unrelated to the fighting on the ground."
Bush will veto the spending package, Perino said, but added, "he looks forward to working with congressional leaders to craft a bill that he can sign."
Anti-war lawmakers are pressing Democratic leaders for the toughest terms possible. One idea that appears to be gaining steam is a shorter-term funding bill -- possibly in the $30 billion to $40 billion range -- that would allow Congress to reassess the war in several months, while taking more time to wrangle over policy measures.
One champion of this approach is Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Pa.), a senior member of appropriations with strong military ties, who has emerged as one of Bush's strongest critics. Murtha is advocating a 60-day bill that would provide enough funds for operations, maintenance and personnel, while carrying the current legislation's provisions on benchmarks and readiness standards for deploying troops.
Senate Democrats regard a shorter duration as impractical, but Reid confirmed that it was in the mix. "We have a lot of things we'll look at -- that's one of the things," he said.
But for the time being, Democrats want to keep the spotlight on the current bill, which should reach Bush by Monday.
"I really, really, really hope the president understands just how damaging his vetoing this legislation will be, how far behind the American people he'll be and how far behind the Congress's mood he is," said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.).
Biden, a 2008 presidential contender, said Bush could strengthen his hand if he compromises with the Democrats. "I think it will enhance his ability to prosecute the war," said Biden. But he added, "I think he's going to have to . . . accept constraints on his bad judgment here in how he's using our troops."