House Democrats' bill orders Iraq withdrawal

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Defiant and unified last night in the face of a promised presidential veto, House Democrats pushed through an emergency war spending bill that orders President Bush to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq by this fall.

The 218-208 vote, largely along party lines, is expected to be followed today by Senate approval of the same measure.

The president has promised to veto the bill early next week.

The $124 billion measure funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through the end of the year and provides billions for veterans' health care and other nonmilitary programs.

Missing the suspense of congressional war debates earlier this year, yesterday's vote is merely one act in a largely scripted political drama unfolding in Washington as congressional Democrats intent on challenging the president push ahead with a bill they know will never become law.

After Bush's veto, Democrats have indicated they will strip out the withdrawal timeline, send the president another version of the spending bill and attach timelines to future legislation.

With rhetorical sparring between the two branches of government showing no sign of slackening, the vote underscored the determination of congressional Democrats to stick together in their face-off with the White House.

Just 13 Democrats broke with the party on the vote, despite relentless efforts by the president and his congressional allies to cast the bill's supporters as reckless and "defeatist." Two Republicans voted for the bill.

Among the Maryland delegation, Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest joined Democratic Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, Steny H. Hoyer, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes, Chris Van Hollen and Albert R. Wynn in voting for the measure. Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett voted against.

"As members of Congress, it is our duty to bring the president back to reality," Cummings said.

"Progress in Iraq will not be measured in military terms. The primary solution to many of the crises in Iraq are simply political."

Yesterday, the White House kept up its criticism. The senior commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, went to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers on the progress of the administration's current strategy to quell the violence with additional troops.

After the briefing, House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said Petraeus told lawmakers that imposing timelines could compromise the current military initiative under way in Iraq.

In public comments after the briefing, however, the general declined to discuss the timelines.

Senior Democratic lawmakers said Petraeus' briefings would not deter them from their plans to impose a timeline.

"There's nothing ... that I heard that would change many people's minds about how to change the course in Iraq," said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan.

Democrats "continue to believe that the only [way] to change the course in Iraq is to pressure the Iraqi leaders to reach a political settlement," Levin said.

Under the bill passed yesterday, if Bush fails to certify that the Iraqi government is making progress on a series of "reconciliation initiatives" - including disarming militias, amending its constitution and equitably dividing oil revenues among the country's sectarian communities - withdrawals must begin July 1.

The plan then sets a nonbinding goal of completing the withdrawal in 180 days, by Dec. 27.

The measure would give Bush more leeway if he can demonstrate that the Iraqi government is making progress. In that case, the plan orders the withdrawal to begin Oct. 1, with a goal to complete the pullout by March 28, 2008.

The Democratic plan allows some U.S. troops to remain to train Iraqi forces, protect American interests and conduct limited counterterrorism operations.

Highlighting the growing readiness crisis facing the military, the plan also requires Bush to explain why military units are being deployed if they have not met standards for training and rest at their home bases.

"This bill supports our troops, honors our commitments to our veterans, rebuilds our military and holds the Iraqi government accountable," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. "It winds down the war by providing for the responsible redeployment of our combat forces."

Boehner, who also has largely held his caucus together, countered that Democrats were sending a dangerous message with their plan.

"We will embolden our enemies, and it's our kids and their kids who will pay a very, very steep price," he said.

Noam N. Levey writes for the Los Angeles Times. Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.

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