Senators set up veto showdown

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted yesterday to tie new war spending in Iraq to a timetable for troop withdrawal, setting up the first veto showdown between the Democratic-controlled Congress and the White House.

Within minutes of the 51-46 vote, the White House declared the measure dead on arrival.

"As he said he would for weeks, the president will veto this legislation," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. "And he looks forward to working with congressional leaders to craft a bill that he can sign."

Bush is asking Congress for the money to continue military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan through September but has vowed to reject any bill that sets deadlines for a pullout. Congressional Democrats do not have the votes to override the veto he is expected to deliver early next week.

Democratic leaders are discussing what to do next. One option they are considering is legislation that would provide money for two more months, setting up a shorter funding cycle that would keep pressure on the president to continue justifying the unpopular war.

But yesterday, they were still urging Bush to sign their bill. The $124.2 billion emergency supplemental appropriation orders a withdrawal to begin no later than Oct. 1 - or earlier, if the Iraqi government fails to achieve benchmarks for progress - with the goal of pulling all U.S. combat troops out by the end of March.

Majority Leader Harry Reid said it would allow the administration to wind down the war in Iraq and refocus on challenges in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

"It provides for the safety of our troops abroad," the Nevada Democrat said. "It sets us on a new course, away from a civil war with no end in sight, toward a responsible phased redeployment that holds Iraqis accountable."

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Democrats of surrendering to terrorists.

"This legislation is tragic," the Kentucky Republican said. "If the Iraqis make progress, we leave. If they don't, we leave. This is not a choice. It is a mandate for defeat that al-Qaida desperately wants."

In Baghdad, an Iraqi government spokesman criticized the vote.

"We see some negative signs in the decision because it sends wrong signals to some sides that might think of alternatives to the political process," Ali al-Dabbagh told the Associated Press.

"Coalition forces gave lots of sacrifices and they should continue their mission, which is building Iraqi security forces to take over," he said. "We see [the legislation] as a loss of four years of sacrifices."

The Senate vote, largely along party lines, fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto. Republicans Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon H. Smith of Oregon and independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont voted with Democrats in favor of the bill; independent Joseph I. Lieberman joined Republicans in voting against the measure.

Not voting were Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Democrat Tim Johnson of South Dakota.

Earlier yesterday, Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski attended a ceremony to send off the 58th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the Maryland National Guard, based in Pikesville. The Maryland Democrats both voted in favor of the bill.

"We need a change in our mission in Iraq so our soldiers can achieve a mission that's in the best interests of this country," Cardin said. "We need to get our soldiers out of the middle of a civil war, to focus on the war against terror."

The House passed the measure Wednesday.

"The Senate has now joined the House in passing defeatist legislation that insists on a date for surrender, micromanages our commanders and generals in combat zones from 6,000 miles away, and adds billions of dollars in unrelated spending," Perino said.

In addition to funds for Iraq and Afghanistan, the bill includes money for health care for veterans, Hurricane Katrina reconstruction and the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the measure reflects the will of the nation. "In the last election, the American people called for a new direction," the California Democrat said. "Nowhere were they more firm in that new direction being necessary than in the war in Iraq. This legislation presents that new direction by supporting the troops - indeed, giving the president more than he asked for."

Americans are siding with Congress over the White House, 56 percent to 37 percent, on establishing a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted during the past week.

Democrats could deliver the bill to the White House on Tuesday, the fourth anniversary of Bush's appearance aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare the end of major combat operations in Iraq.

Perino said Bush would meet with congressional leaders to start work on a new bill. She said short-term funding was not a "sensible option."

"It would only kick the can down the road, perpetuate inefficiency and disruption in cash-flow, and most importantly create uncertainty in military planning," she said.

McConnell said the solution was clear. "Take out the surrender date," he said. "Take out the pork. And send the money for the troops down to the president for signature. They desperately need it."

Democrats declined yesterday to discuss what they might put into a post-veto bill. But Reid said that if Congress and the White House can agree on an approach, legislation could be developed and approved by June 1.

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has said that the Army has the money to fund operations in Iraq into July.

The Senate vote came hours after the commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq described conditions there as "exceedingly complex and very tough." With two Army brigades still to arrive, Gen. David Petraeus said it was too early to judge the results of the troop buildup ordered by Bush in January.

"I want to be very clear that there is vastly more work to be done across the board and in many areas," he told reporters. "We are really just getting started with the new effort."

Petraeus, who briefed members of Congress on Iraq earlier this week, declined to comment on the bill approved yesterday.

"I have ... tried to stay clear of the political minefields of various legislative proposals," he said.

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

Sun reporter David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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