By Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 10, 2007
House Republican moderates, in a remarkably blunt White House meeting, warned President Bush this week that his pursuit of the war in Iraq is risking the future of the Republican Party and that he cannot count on GOP support for many more months.
The meeting, which ran for an hour and a half Tuesday afternoon, was disclosed by participants yesterday as the House prepared to vote this evening on a spending bill that could cut funding for the Iraq war as early as July. GOP moderates told Bush they would stay united against the latest effort by House Democrats to end U.S. involvement in the war. Even Senate Democrats called the House measure unrealistic.
But the meeting between 11 House Republicans, Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, White House political adviser Karl Rove and presidential press secretary Tony Snow was perhaps the clearest sign yet that patience in the party is running out. The meeting, organized by Rep. Charlie Dent (Pa.), one of the co-chairs of the moderate "Tuesday Group," included Reps. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), Michael N. Castle (Del.), Todd R. Platts (Pa.), Jim Ramstad (Minn.) and Jo Ann Emerson (Mo.).
"It was a very remarkable, candid conversation," Davis said. "People are always saying President Bush is in a bubble. Well, this was our chance, and we took it."
Even with pressure mounting, Congress and the White House are making little progress as they try to find a bipartisan option to fund the war through the summer. Senate leaders met with White House officials yesterday and produced no agreement, as Gates warned lawmakers that the debate is beginning to delay Pentagon operations.
The one area of agreement seemed to be that U.S. officials want the Iraqi government to better contain violence there. Vice President Cheney made an unannounced trip to Baghdad yesterday to meet with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other officials. He urged them to help end fighting between rival Sunni and Shiite factions, to make progress on revising their constitution, and to better manage their oil revenue.
Cheney also expressed concern about the Iraqi parliament considering a two-month summer vacation. That has angered members of Congress and other American officials, who say it shows a lack of concern for the commitment of U.S. troops.
Participants in Tuesday's White House meeting said frustration about the Iraqi government's efforts dominated the conversation, with one pleading with the president to stop the Iraqi parliament from going on vacation while "our sons and daughters spill their blood." The House members pressed Bush and Gates hard for a "Plan B" if the current troop increase fails to quell the violence and push along political reconciliation. Davis said that administration officials convinced him there are contingency plans, but that the president declined to offer details, saying that if he announced his backup plan, the world would shift its focus to that contingency, leaving the current strategy no time to succeed.
Davis, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, also presented Bush dismal polling figures to dramatize just how perilous the party's position is, participants said. Davis would not disclose details, saying the exchange was private. Others warned Bush that his personal credibility on the war is all but gone.
Snow, who sat in on the meeting in the president's private quarters, said it should not be overdramatized or seen as another "marching up to Nixon," a reference to the critical moment during Watergate in 1974 when key congressional Republicans went to the White House to tell President Richard M. Nixon that it was time to resign.
"This is not one of those great cresting moments when party discontents are coming in to read the president the riot act," he said. But Snow acknowledged that the meeting included some blunt, if respectful, discussion.
Davis stressed that Republicans will remain united against the Democratic bill in the House today. But the search for an exit is almost inevitable. "The key for everybody is to try to find a way to declare victory and get out of there," he said.
The House bill, which Bush vowed to veto yesterday, would divide war funding into two installments. The first $43 billion would be released immediately, with new standards for resting, training and equipping troops and a slate of benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet. Bush would be required to submit to Congress by July 13 three reports measuring Iraqi progress on those benchmarks, which of the goals had been met and how many Iraqi combat units are ready to operate on their own. About 10 days later, the House would vote again, first on whether to cut off funding for further combat in Iraq and then on releasing the remaining $53 billion.
But Senate Democrats view that two-month time frame as unrealistic. "It puts the troops on a very short leash in terms of funding, and I don't think we should do that," said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (Mich.). After meeting with White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) said: "They have to do what they have to do." Reid said he would wait until after the House vote before deciding on Senate language.
One concern is that the conflicting House and Senate approaches could jeopardize Democrats' goal of delivering a final package to Bush before the Memorial Day recess. Democrats are eager to avoid political pitfalls that could occur if troop funding begins to run out.
Gates told the Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday that the drawn-out debate over the bill is already forcing the Pentagon to curtail contracts and hiring and to stop funding some programs in order to sustain troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the Senate, Reid -- who has co-sponsored a bill that would end the war within a year -- is seeking to avoid a Republican filibuster by negotiating with McConnell and the White House.
One idea, favored by some senior Senate Democrats, would link benchmarks to a continued U.S. military commitment, requiring Bush to meet strict reporting requirements and to seek waivers for continued U.S. operations, if the Iraqis fall short.
Another proposal, popular with moderate Republicans, would withhold reconstruction aid if the Iraqi government fails to show progress. A third, announced yesterday by Sens. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), would reduce U.S. forces to pre-escalation levels if the benchmarks are not met.
Staff writers Ann Scott Tyson and Peter Baker contributed to this report.