After Victory on Hill, President Shifts Tone on Iraq

President Bush walks to the White House Rose Garden for a news conference at which he called for progress by the Iraqi government.
President Bush walks to the White House Rose Garden for a news conference at which he called for progress by the Iraqi government. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)
By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 25, 2007

President Bush faced reporters for his first full-scale, solo news conference in three months savoring what may be a last victory in his battle with Congress over the course of the war in Iraq.

Hours later, the House and Senate would deliver to the White House $100 billion in war funding, shorn of the timelines intended to end the U.S. mission by early next year.

By refusing to budge on demanding a no-strings-attached bill, Bush forced congressional Democrats to back off, at least temporarily, from their efforts to end the war by including conditions on a war funding bill. It was a sign that while Bush's popularity may be scraping historic lows, he still has some stick in Washington.

But the ground beneath the president on the issue remains precarious, as he himself recognized yesterday in addressing Iraq, which was the focus of questioning during a 50-minute session in the Rose Garden. There was little gloating over his victory in Congress, only praise of bipartisanship and a sober new warning to the Iraqi government to shape up.

"As it provides vital funds for our troops, this bill also reflects a consensus that the Iraqi government needs to show real progress in return for America's continued support and sacrifice," Bush said, alluding to the bill's setting of benchmarks for the Iraqi government to achieve security and political reconciliation.

Bush also hinted at a possible change in military strategy, saying on three different occasions that he liked the recommendation of the Iraq Study Group, headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), to shift U.S. troops from combat to a training mission.

Although the president was initially tepid to the panel's report last December, Bush said its ideas now appeal to him because they offer "a kind of long-term basis" for stabilizing Iraq. "I believe this is an area where . . . we can find common ground with Democrats and Republicans," he said.

Democrats reacted skeptically to Bush's conversion. "While we are glad the president has started to acknowledge the value of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group as a 'Plan B,' this has been 'Plan A' for Democrats, military experts and the American people since before the report came out in December," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "Republicans' increasing support for timetables and benchmarks demonstrates we have made some progress."

Yesterday's session in the Rose Garden was an opportunity for Bush to weigh in on the events of the past week, which offered the first glimmer of good news for the White House after months of troubling disclosures about the Justice Department and a continuing inability to lessen sectarian violence in Iraq.

In addition to the Iraq deal with Congress, Bush also quietly negotiated with a bipartisan group of senators a plan to beef up border security, set up a temporary-worker program and provide a pathway to citizenship for about 12 million immigrants here illegally.

Bush served notice that he is ready to fight for the immigration deal, which has come under fire from both right and left and was off to a shaky start this week as the full Senate began debate. The president offered his most forceful defense of the bill since its contours became known last week, in particular training his fire on Republican presidential candidates and others in his party who have labeled its provisions giving visas to illegal immigrants as a form of "amnesty."

"Anything short of kicking them out, as far as some people are concerned, is called amnesty," Bush said. "You can't kick them out. For anybody who advocates trying to dig out 12 million people who have been in our society for a while, it's sending a signal to the American people that's just not real. It's an impractical solution."

Bush said Americans "are rightly skeptical about immigration reform" but said the new bill "addresses the reasons for past failures while recognizing the legitimate needs of our economy and upholding the ideals of our immigrant tradition."

In some respects, yesterday's news conference seemed like a package of familiar White House refrains on Iraq, as Bush once again offered no regrets for his campaign to evict Saddam Hussein and spoke extensively of the threat to this country from al-Qaeda. He accelerated his campaign to focus U.S. attention on what is at stake in Iraq, saying: "Failure in Iraq affects the security of this country. . . . It's hard for some Americans to see that. I fully understand it. I see it clearly."

Bush dismissed a question about whether he was a "credible messenger" on the war, given the distrust many have expressed about his leadership. "I'm credible because I read the intelligence," he snapped in response to the question, from NBC's David Gregory. "This concept about, well, maybe you know, let us kind of just leave them alone and maybe they'll be all right is naive. These people attacked us before we were in Iraq. They viciously attacked us before we were in Iraq, and they have been attacking us ever since. They are a threat to your children, David."

Vin Weber, a GOP strategist with ties to the White House, called Bush's success on war funding a "big deal" for the president but said the bigger fight lies ahead this fall, when Congress will confront a bill funding the war through the next fiscal year. At the White House, he said, "they fully understand that there has to be success on the ground in Iraq and a major campaign at home this summer -- or else they will lose the victory they had this summer."

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