Bush, Congress eye next Iraq step

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- As promised, President Bush vetoed a spending bill yesterday that contained a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, propelling the confrontation between Congress and the White House into an uncertain new phase.

Bush rejected the $124.2 billion emergency supplemental appropriation just hours after lawmakers sent it to him. The veto, only the second of his presidency, came on the fourth anniversary of the speech aboard an aircraft carrier in which he declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq under a banner that read "Mission Accomplished."

"Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a date for failure," Bush said in a nationally televised address yesterday evening. "And that would be irresponsible."

Democratic leaders, staging their own event for the cameras, said Bush was ignoring the will of the American people. Opinion polls show that most Americans want U.S. troops out of Iraq by August 2008.

"The president may be content with keeping our troops mired in the middle of an open-ended civil war, but we are not -- and neither are most Americans," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. "If the president thinks that by vetoing this bill he will stop us from working to change the direction of this war, he is mistaken."

Reid spoke, surrounded by House and Senate Democratic leaders, shortly after Bush delivered his remarks. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland was notably absent; he was participating in a previously scheduled teleconference with constituents.

The president and congressional leaders are to meet this afternoon to discuss the next step. Congressional Democrats lack the votes for a veto override, which they are expected to attempt today.

Congress faces pressure to provide funding for the war before the money runs out this summer and is expected to do so. Bush wants to be able to show that his troop increase is succeeding by the time the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, reports on the progress of the war in September.

"Now we get into the face-saving aspect of this," said Stephen Hess, a professor at George Washington University.

Outlines of a possible deal are beginning to take shape around a set of benchmarks for progress by the Iraqi government. If the goals are missed, reconstruction aid could be reduced.

"There are a number of Republicans who do think that some kind of benchmarks, properly crafted, would actually be helpful," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. "That is an area that we can talk about."

Democrats also have proposed standards such as requiring that troops be properly equipped, trained and rested before they are deployed. The president could waive those requirements, but not without a public explanation.

So far, Bush has shown no inclination to accept such benchmarks.

"All the terrorists would have to do is mark their calendars and gather their strength -- and begin plotting how to overthrow the government and take control of the country of Iraq," he said yesterday evening at the White House.

Even as Bush and Congress seek common ground on emergency spending, other deadlines loom.

The report by Petraeus in September is to be the first full accounting since Bush announced his troop increase in January. If progress remains slow, Democrats would have more leverage with which to pressure the Bush administration to bring the troops home.

The president's veto culminated months of tension since the November elections, when Democrats gained control of Congress on an anti-war message and began leading emotional floor debates in opposition to the troop increase.

Analysts say the sides now are likely to move beyond the standoff over Iraq.

"I think there will be a compromise, and they'll pass a bill," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "The president will say he won, because he avoided timelines. The Democrats will say, 'Look, we're trying to push the president to change his position; he's intransigent; he won't.'"

Bush has maintained a strong position during the war-funding stalemate, said Hess, a White House aide during the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations, because "in a sense, supporting the troops was always going to take precedence in the public opinion."

"He got whatever mileage he could out of it," Hess said. "He's come to the end of that usefulness."

Democrats in Congress are looking at the possible end of a fragile coalition of vocal war opponents and centrist Democrats who fear being labeled as opposing the troops. While some anti-war Democrats probably would vote against a funding bill that does not contain troop withdrawal timelines, Republicans could lend their support.

In January, the president talked about specific measures that Iraqis must take to achieve stability, including the development of a national counterterrorism force, reform of the Iraqi Cabinet and the addition of army units.

A Pew Research Center survey on the Iraq showdown, released last week, showed that nearly six in 10 Americans supported a timeline for troop withdrawal as part of the war spending plan. The opinion poll and others like it "made the Democrats more confident that they can oppose the president without paying a political price, and it has made Republicans more wary of backing the president unconditionally," said Scott Keeter, the Pew center's director of survey research.

Analysts said that evolving conditions on the ground in Iraq would greatly influence the course of debate in Washington.

"I think the Republicans for the most part are standing fast in the ranks until such point at which the news becomes so unrelievedly negative and hopeless that it's then safe to jump ship," said Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist.

In the end, he and others said, Bush is likely to get the money with no strings attached.

"That arrangement, if that is in fact what occurs, is going to be much more satisfying to the president and his partisans," Baker said. "The Democrats are going to have a harder time explaining why they couldn't hold the president's feet to the fire. They'll have to make a case that this was the best they could get."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com david.nitkin@baltsun.com

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