Showdown nears on war plan

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Moving closer to a showdown over funding the war in Iraq, President Bush and congressional Democratic leaders emerged from a much-anticipated White House meeting yesterday without progress toward ending an impasse over an emergency spending bill.

Despite Bush's veto threat, the Democrats continued to press ahead with legislation that would force the administration to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq.

"We cannot give the president a blank check," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said after the meeting, which included House and Senate Republican leaders.

Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, and other senior Democratic lawmakers are intensifying their efforts to unite congressional Democrats behind a single plan for bringing the U.S. forces home.

Last month, the House and Senate passed different versions of the war funding bill; the House measure set a deadline for withdrawing U.S. forces no later than August 2008, and the Senate legislation contained a nonbinding "goal" for completing the withdrawal by March.

The weaker Senate version generated criticism from many war opponents, who have called for Congress to act more boldly to end the war. The initial challenge for the Democratic congressional version is to find a compromise that can pass both chambers.

Bush, meanwhile, has pledged to veto any legislation that sets withdrawal dates, which he has said would tie the hands of commanders on the ground and foolishly telegraph when American forces would stop fighting. Those on both sides of the dispute agree there is virtually no chance either the House or Senate could muster the two-thirds majorities required to override a veto.

GOP lawmakers have been trying to highlight divisions between Democrats over how hard to press the White House to bring troops home. There are signs, however, that even some of the staunchest anti-war Democrats in the House may agree to a nonbinding goal for withdrawing U.S. forces.

That would allow congressional Democrats to present a united front against the president.

"This war is a travesty, and I want it over now," said Rep. James McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat and a member of the House's Out of Iraq caucus. "But I put my trust in [Pelosi]. My instinct is to give her the benefit of the doubt."

Members of the more than 80-strong Out of Iraq caucus provided the critical votes to pass the House bill last month when most abandoned their demand that the measure set a faster timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops.

Some members of the caucus say they will demand that any compromise worked out between House and Senate leaders maintain the firm deadline passed by the House.

"Everyone has a limit of how far they can go, and I think I've gone about as far as I can go," said Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat and a freshman lawmaker who ran on an anti-war platform last year.

Noam N. Levey writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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