WASHINGTON -- The House failed yesterday to override President Bush's veto of an Iraq funding bill that included a timetable for withdrawal of combat troops. The White House and Congress began talks on a compromise.
Congressional leaders from both parties emerged with great optimism from an afternoon meeting with Bush but with few details on what sort of agreement they expect to reach.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, called the meeting "positive." Her Republican counterpart, Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, said it was "very productive," reporting no tense moments.
The leaders said they had agreed on a process for negotiation and appointed negotiators. They barely discussed what any deal might look like, however. Boehner said the word benchmarks - a Bush term for measurable progress by the Iraqi government that Democrats have lofted throughout the debate - came up, but only briefly.
The vote in the House was 222-203, well short of the two-thirds majority needed to override Bush's veto.
Members of the Maryland delegation voted yesterday as they had on the original bill. 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 override. Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett voted against.
But Pelosi said her party's goal has not changed. "Make no mistake," she said. "Democrats are committed to ending this war."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, was asked about Bush's veto message, which included the line: "This legislation is unconstitutional because it purports to direct the conduct of the operations of the war in a way that infringes upon the powers vested in the presidency by the Constitution, including as commander in chief of the armed forces." Reid, a former city attorney, replied softly: "We are not going to be submitting our legislation to someone-who-didn't-go-to-law-school's idea of constitutionality."
Bush, who exercised only the second veto of his presidency in rejecting the war-spending bill Tuesday, turned more conciliatory yesterday: "Yesterday was a day that highlighted differences," he said at the start of his meeting with congressional leaders. "Today is a day where we can work together to find common ground."
In the House, the negotiators will be Rep. David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat and the appropriations committee chairman, and Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, the committee's ranking Republican. In the Senate, those discussing a compromise will be Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
The president's point men in the negotiations will be his chief of staff, Josh Bolten; his national security adviser, Steve Hadley; and his budget director, Rob Portman.
In the House, the divisions on Iraq remained stark and wide.
Rep. Tim Walz, a Minnesota Democrat, complained: "Now the president's rejected our legislation, he has the responsibility to tell the American people how many more years does he expect us to stay. Do you think it will be five, maybe 10? And what exactly do the ground conditions look like in order to have us beginning to withdraw? Wishful thinking, political talking points and rigid ideology do not make good foreign policy."
But Rep. Zach Wamp, a Tennessee Republican, defended the president's stand.
"The veto was the right thing to do," he said. "The president's not popular. We all know that. But isn't it refreshing that the president's doing the right thing even though it's unpopular?
"He's putting the interest of our country above that of his party. That's leadership."
The fight has been brewing for nearly three months, ever since Bush sent Congress his request for emergency financing for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, including money to support his troop buildup. In the negotiations toward a new bill, the parties are expected to look for ways to preserve the benchmarks for Iraqi progress that were included in the initial bill while eliminating the timetables for troop withdrawal that Bush has emphatically rejected.
Several Republican leaders said they were likely to support such benchmarks, and White House aides said Bush, who has supported goals and benchmarks for the Iraqi government, might back such a measure - but only if the benchmarks are nonbinding.
Jim Tankersley and Mark Silva write for the Chicago Tribune. The New York Times contributed to this article.