By Michael Abramowitz and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 2, 2007
President Bush vetoed a $124 billion measure yesterday that would have funded overseas military operations but required him to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq as early as July, escalating the most serious confrontation between the White House and Congress over war policy in a generation.
Bush carried through on his veto threat just after the legislation arrived at the White House, calling the timetable a "prescription for chaos and confusion" that would undercut generals. "Setting a deadline for withdrawal would demoralize the Iraqi people, would encourage killers across the broader Middle East and send a signal that America will not keep its commitments," he said last night. "Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a date for failure."
Democratic congressional leaders cast the veto as willful defiance of the American people. "The president wants a blank check," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said just minutes after Bush's statement. "The Congress is not going to give it to him." Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) said that "if the president thinks that by vetoing this bill he will stop us from trying to change the direction of this war, he is mistaken."
The clash harked back to the debates of the Vietnam War era, when lawmakers likewise tried to use the power of the purse to end an unpopular conflict.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the government has allocated about $503 billion for Iraq, Afghanistan and anti-terrorism operations -- with about 70 percent going to the war in Iraq, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Bush has asked for an additional $245 billion for war spending, including the $100 billion in the emergency supplemental bill now at issue.
Democrats passed the legislation on the barest of party-line votes and harbor no hope of overriding Bush's veto. But as the two sides went through yesterday's highly orchestrated proceedings, more Republicans broke with Bush and signaled they want to make a deal.
"Some kind of compromise has to be worked out between the administration and the Democrats," said Sen. George V. Voinovich (Ohio), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. "That's how it's done. Everybody holds their nose and maybe a couple of times vomits, but you get it done."
Bush plans to host congressional leaders from both parties at the White House this afternoon. Discussion yesterday centered on the idea of revised spending legislation that would abandon the Democrats' withdrawal mandate but cut back nonmilitary U.S. aid to the Iraqi government if it does not meet certain benchmarks for political reconciliation, a proposal advanced by House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) mentioned that idea yesterday as he warned that neither party can go into the next round of talks with absolute demands for what can and cannot be in the bill. "It's time to stop laying down these guidelines, saying, 'It's got to be this, it's got to be that,' " he said.
Democrats have indicated they see June 1 as a drop-dead date for finishing the bill.
The long-anticipated veto, the second of Bush's presidency, came on a day of dueling events staged by the White House and Congress aimed at securing the political advantage in the debate. Although the bill was approved last week, Democrats waited until yesterday to deliver it to the president so that it would coincide with the fourth anniversary of the day Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq under a banner reading "Mission Accomplished."
Bush, meanwhile, spent the day at the Tampa headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and received a briefing from Adm. William J. Fallon, the Centcom commander; Gen. David H. Petraeus, the Iraq commander; and Gen. Bryan D. Brown, head of the Special Operations Command. Bush then appeared before military officials from around the world to thank them for their contributions in what he described as a fight against Islamic extremists.
"Our main enemy is al-Qaeda and its affiliates," he said, adding that "failure in Iraq should be unacceptable to the civilized world -- the risks are enormous."
He vetoed the bill shortly after Marine One landed at the White House and then marched before cameras on the state floor to explain why.
Polls suggest the public supports withdrawing troops from Iraq. A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released last week showed that 59 percent of Americans want a withdrawal schedule in the spending bill, although a New York Times-CBS News poll showed that a similar majority wants the war funded even if Bush does not accept timetables.
But such polls have little resonance with Bush these days. "He is convinced that he is doing the right thing," said Fred S. Zeidman, a longtime friend from Texas who spoke to Bush before a recent speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. "He said to me he is not going to allow public opinion to interfere with what he thinks is right for the United States."
Even if an agreement can be reached on the current spending bill, Democrats have served notice that they will try to attach limits on the war to later appropriations. While White House aides said that they hope for a compromise, they also indicated that the president has no intention of accepting significant restrictions on his ability to prosecute the war.
"I am sure there is room for discussion about elements of a supplemental, but I don't think there is room to compromise the fundamental elements of a commander-in-chief function," a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe White House thinking, said in a recent interview. The goal is to give the U.S. military and Iraqi officials a chance to make progress on the ground, and the official said he is "hopeful that there is more than enough time" for Bush's new strategy to succeed.
Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.