By Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 4, 2007
As Democrats in Congress search for new ways to bring an end to the conflict in Iraq while producing a funding bill that President Bush will sign, the front-runner for the party's presidential nomination yesterday endorsed legislation that would revoke the administration's authority to wage the war.
Amid a flurry of backroom negotiations yesterday afternoon, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) took the Senate floor to join Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) in offering a bill that would sunset the 2002 authorization of military operations in Iraq. It would take away the president's authority to wage war in Iraq five years to the day after it was granted, meaning Bush would be required to convince Congress to reapprove it in October.
Meanwhile, White House negotiators tasked with hashing out a compromise spending bill are considering a plan that would tie U.S. financial aid to the Baghdad government's progress in meeting certain political goals. But they ruled out linking U.S. troop deployments to such benchmarks, administration officials said.
Those officials said they would be open to a measure holding Iraqis accountable for political reconciliation as long as it is flexible and not framed as overly punitive. The position was viewed as a concession that could ease negotiations on a replacement for the $124 billion funding bill vetoed by Bush this week.
House Democratic leaders last night mulled a new proposal, floated by House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.), that would fund the war effort for three months, through the end of August. Further funding would come only after Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander in Iraq, briefed Congress on military progress and the progress of the Iraqi government in achieving a set of benchmarks, such as quelling sectarian violence, disarming militias and adopting changes to the Iraqi constitution to guarantee equality among ethnic and religious groups.
Clinton's endorsement of the sunset legislation represents a significant escalation in her opposition to the White House on war policy and signals an effort by Democratic presidential candidates -- including four sitting senators -- to assume higher profiles in the war debate. For Clinton, it is also an opportunity to address what has emerged as perhaps her greatest liability in the Democratic contest: her vote to authorize the war. "If the president will not bring himself to accept reality, it is time for Congress to bring reality to him," said Clinton, who has expressed support for a similar de-authorization, although not as a stand-alone bill.
The Clinton-Byrd proposal, which was floated in February but not introduced, emerged as Democrats began weighing different legislative vehicles to end the war. One approach favored by many House members is to allow a relatively unencumbered, shorter-term spending bill to reach the president, while the weightier and more controversial war-policy language would be shifted to another measure.
"There are different ways to get to the same goal, and we're going to pursue them vigorously," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "But we are not backing off our fervent, strong view that the mission has to change."
White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and budget director Rob Portman, Bush's designated negotiators, made a first trip to Capitol Hill yesterday to meet with congressional leaders. The next round of meetings is expected early next week.
Meanwhile, Democratic and Republican leaders have cast a wide net in seeking consensus for final legislation. In the Senate, Republican war critics Susan Collins (Maine), Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and John W. Warner (Va.) are reaching out to Democrats on benchmark proposals, while Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has tapped centrist Democrat Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.) to help build bridges with Republicans and keep the Democratic caucus as united as possible.
GOP congressional leaders remain divided over how to approach the negotiations. At a bipartisan, bicameral White House meeting on Wednesday, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) pushed a hard line, demanding that Democrats give Bush a funding bill stripped of war policies and extraneous spending. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) sounded more conciliatory, echoing recent public comments that benchmarks for the Iraqi government be tied to nonmilitary assistance and that Republicans be prepared to compromise.
Republicans close to the leadership said Boehner and Blunt remained fundamentally at odds over negotiating strategies. Boehner believes that if Democratic leaders move away from binding language to pull troops from Iraq, they will alienate liberal members, forcing them to appeal to Republicans for votes.
On the other hand, Blunt, along with McConnell, is wary of pressure to break with the president and constructively engage in the Democratic-led debate to end a war that voters have all but given up on.
Obey, who is leading the negotiations for House Democrats, told a closed-door Democratic caucus meeting yesterday that leaders will divide war policy prescriptions among three bills: a second version of the $124 billion emergency war-funding bill; the annual defense policy bill; and the 2008 defense spending bill. All three would come to the House floor in rapid succession.
In the Senate, Reid said all ideas are on the table but added, "I don't know what will bring Republicans on board."
One wild card is the sudden deluge of ideas from Democratic presidential candidates, who have opened up a new, largely political front in the debate.
Reaction to Clinton's speech was swift. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) noted that he had touted the de-authorization idea in January, while New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) argued that he had proposed it first. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) also chimed in, saying, "While I applaud this effort, sadly, it will not change the president's course in Iraq."
Former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) said in a statement that Bush "exceeded his authority a long time ago; now he needs to end the war, and that's what Congress should focus on."
The campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Clinton's chief rival for the nomination, endorsed the de-authorization plan but pointed out that Obama opposed the original authorization and "doesn't believe we should wait until October to begin bringing this war to a close."
Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.