Democrats Relent On Pullout Timetable

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), left, and Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) talk to reporters. The GOP has remained united throughout the debate on the war funding legislation.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), left, and Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) talk to reporters. The GOP has remained united throughout the debate on the war funding legislation. (By Susan Walsh -- Associated Press)
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Democrats gave up their demand for troop-withdrawal deadlines in an Iraq war spending package yesterday, abandoning their top goal of bringing U.S. troops home and handing President Bush a victory in a debate that has roiled Congress for months.

Bush, who has already vetoed one spending bill with a troop timeline, had threatened to do the same with the next version if it came with such a condition. Democratic leaders had moved ahead anyway, under heavy pressure from liberals who believe that the party won control of Congress in November on the strength of antiwar sentiment. But in the end, Democrats said they did not have enough votes to override a presidential veto and could not delay troop funding.

The spending package, expected to total $120 billion when the final version is released today, would require Bush to surrender virtually none of his war authority. Democrats were working to secure two other priorities that the president had previously resisted: an increase in the minimum wage and funding for domestic programs, including veterans' benefits, Hurricane Katrina relief and agricultural aid.

Instead of sticking with troop-withdrawal dates, Democrats accepted a GOP plan to establish 18 political and legislative benchmarks for the Iraqi government, with periodic reports from Bush on its progress, starting in late July. If the Iraqis fall short, they could forfeit U.S. reconstruction aid.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was so disappointed with the outcome that she said she might vote against the Iraq portion of the package, which will be split into two parts when it comes before the House. "I'm not likely to vote for something that doesn't have a timetable," she said.

Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) worked through yesterday evening to hammer out a final agreement, consulting regularly with GOP leaders and the White House. The package is expected to come before the House and the Senate tomorrow and to be sent to Bush no later than Friday, before members of Congress leave for a weeklong Memorial Day recess. Reid called the benchmark language "extremely weak," but he noted that Bush had initially demanded a bill with no strings attached on Iraq. "For heaven's sake, look where we've come," Reid said. "It's a lot more than the president ever expected he'd have to agree to."

Republicans remained united throughout the debate, despite strong public opposition to the war and growing internal doubts that a military victory in Iraq is achievable. While some Republicans chastised Democrats for backing off from "surrender dates," GOP reaction was somewhat muted when details of the deal circulated yesterday afternoon.

The war debate on Capitol Hill began in January, when Bush announced plans to increase troop levels in Iraq. It has raged without pause ever since, pushing aside the Democrats' ambitious 2006 election agenda, while testing loyalties in both parties. After initially resisting all Democratic efforts to challenge Bush, many GOP lawmakers are now prepared to reassess the entire war effort once the new funding measure expires on Sept. 30.

"As our leadership from the president on down to the leaders of Congress have said repeatedly, we're not there forever," said Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), who crafted the benchmark proposal with a group of moderate Republicans and Democrats. "We're there to help you so long as you, as a sovereign nation, pull your own weight and do your responsible job."

From the outset of the battle on spending, Democratic leaders knew that their options would be limited by the party's slim majorities in both chambers. In the 51 to 49 Senate, Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) was absent after a brain hemorrhage, while independent Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), a member of the Democratic caucus, backed Bush on the war. Passage of the first spending bill was secured by a narrow 51 to 46 vote, with support from two Republicans, Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and Gordon Smith (Ore.).

Bush vetoed that bill on May 1, singling out provisions that would have required troop withdrawals to begin later this year while setting a goal of removing most U.S. combat forces by March 31, 2008. Meanwhile, the benchmarks started to circulate among Republicans as a possible alternative.

Almost all Republicans, along with Lieberman and seven Democrats, backed the Warner proposal last week in a symbolic Senate vote. In a meeting Friday with congressional leaders, White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten signaled that Bush would accept the Warner terms, but Pelosi and Reid continued to press for a withdrawal timetable, even offering Bush a waiver option.

Democrats said they would drop the domestic spending in the bill in exchange, but when Bolten declined the withdrawal offer, Reid and Pelosi put the additional billions back on the table. Last night, negotiators said Democrats had dropped just three items from the first bill, including funding for a low-income heating program and fishing industry subsidies.

"Both sides are in a position where neither can do something without the other. That's the reality," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

Even before the ink was dry on the spending deal, antiwar lawmakers expressed strong opposition. "There has been a lot of tough talk from members of Congress about wanting to end this war, but it looks like the desire for political comfort won out over real action," said Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.). But Democrats vowed to continue their quest on other legislative vehicles. The big showdown will come in several months, when funding from the new bill expires and results from the U.S. troop buildup and the Iraqi benchmarks begin to materialize.

"This is another stage in the sequencing of ending this war," said Pelosi, who added that September will be "the moment of truth."

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