By Dan Balz and David S. Broder
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 2, 2007
Democratic presidential candidates urged Congress yesterday not to yield to President Bush's veto of an Iraq funding bill that included a timetable for beginning troop withdrawals, but the party's two leading contenders were more tentative than their rivals in offering support for aggressive steps to bring the war to an end.
Four candidates -- Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former senator John Edwards of North Carolina -- called on Democrats to consider more drastic steps aimed at ending the war.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, however, argued that Congress should stay focused on the fight over the supplemental funding bill before considering more far-reaching steps favored by their rivals. Clinton hinted that she is open to compromise with the president, but she declined to specify the shape of an agreement.
Obama and Clinton were on opposite sides of the Iraq war at its outset, with Obama opposed to the invasion and Clinton among the Democrats who voted for the 2002 resolution authorizing the war. But on the day Bush was challenging Congress, the two front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination found themselves at odds with their rivals in considering other steps beyond the veto fight to force troop withdrawals.
Biden and Edwards urged Democrats to send the supplemental funding bill back to the president and force him to veto it again. "I favor a relentless push on the president, with every penny the troops need, because this guy is not going to change until the Republicans up here crack," Biden said in an interview. "That is happening, but it may take until September."
Edwards, through an aide, said Democrats should not back down because of the veto. "Congress should send him another bill with a timeline for withdrawal, and if he vetoes that bill Congress should send him another until we end this war and bring our troops home," Edwards said.
Richardson, who favors a quick end to the war, argued for a major strategic shift by the Democrats. Rather than focusing on the supplemental funding bill, he said, Democrats should try to win support for a resolution that would take away Bush's authority to continue the war.
Richardson argued that the 2002 resolution is invalid because it was based on the assumption that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. If Congress passed a resolution de-authorizing the war, he said, Bush would be forced to challenge it in the courts and ultimately the Supreme Court would have to rule on it.
"I would go with this very clear de-authorization issue," he said in a telephone interview from Nevada. "There are other issues besides the war in Iraq that are at stake. One is Congress's responsibility to initiate a war. It's got to be a constitutional issue, a separation-of-powers issue."
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) said Congress should simply refuse to provide any additional money for the war.
In contrast to Biden, Dodd, Edwards, Kucinich and Richardson, the front-runners offered more cautious responses to Bush's veto.
Clinton issued a statement through her Senate office urging Bush to begin to negotiate with congressional Democrats "on a funding bill that will enable us to begin redeploying our troops."
The statement did not address potential areas of compromise that she would support, such as benchmarks for the Iraqi government, and her spokesman declined to go beyond the statement. Biden, for example, said he opposes a compromise that includes only benchmarks.
Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said the Illinois senator prefers to continue to gather support in Congress to override the president's veto. "Senator Obama is focused on putting pressure on members of Congress to override the president's veto," he said. "It's obvious now that the president is too stubborn to move and the only way to change the direction of his war is to change Congress."
Gibbs said Obama believes that Democrats have made progress in changing minds in Congress and said there will be future opportunities, whether through the supplemental bill or future defense spending measures, to build support for a course change in Iraq.
Nor were Clinton or Obama willing to say whether they could support legislation co-sponsored initially by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) that would begin a troop withdrawal 120 days after enactment and cut off funds for the war, with some narrow exceptions, on March 31, 2008.
"Anything on that is a ways away," Gibbs said.
Clinton's Senate spokesman, Philippe Reines, said in an e-mail message, "She is focused on the current efforts to enact the legislation that provides funding for our troops while changing course in Iraq."
Their rivals were less hesitant in offering their views on the Feingold-Reid measure. Dodd was the first of the Democratic presidential candidates to sign onto the bill and Christy Setzer, Dodd's campaign press secretary, said in an e-mail message yesterday: "He will continue to seek opportunities to stand up to the president on his failed policy, end the war and bring our troops home."
Edwards would go further than the Feingold-Reid bill by requiring an immediate withdrawal of 40,000 to 50,000 troops, although his timetable for full withdrawal could stretch to 18 months. But, he said, using the power of the purse to force a troop withdrawal "is exactly the right thing to do."
Richardson said he supported Feingold-Reid but preferred his own strategy of denying Bush's authority to continue the war as a more effective option. Biden offered tentative support for the Feingold-Reid approach, but only if there is sufficient funding for a residual force in Iraq. He said if the measure included that provision, "I would be inclined to look favorably at it."
Biden has argued recently that the only successful solution to the Iraq war is a political settlement that calls for partitioning the country into three largely autonomous regions. His rivals, he said, are wrong to put their faith in creating a strong central government in Iraq.
Dodd called Biden's plan unrealistic. Obama believes such a solution can be done only at the instigation of the Iraqi parties, "not an America imposed solution," Gibbs said.
Richardson called it "a step in the right direction" but said the United States first must push for a strong central government with the goal of a loose confederation of entities, not the equivalent of separate states.
Clinton did not address the issue in response to questions.