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 Wednesday 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 (D-San Francisco) said after the meeting, which included House and Senate Republican leaders.
Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other senior Democratic lawmakers are intensifying their efforts to unite congressional Democrats behind a single plan for bringing U.S. forces home.
Last month, the House and Senate passed different versions of the war funding bill. The House measure set an August 2008 deadline for withdrawing virtually all U.S. combat forces; the Senate legislation calls for withdrawal to begin within four months of the bill’s enactment and sets a nonbinding “goal” for completing redeployment 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 congressional Democrats is to draft a compromise version that can pass both chambers.
Bush, meanwhile, has pledged to veto any legislation that includes 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 among Democrats about how hard to press the White House to bring troops home. There are signs, however, that even some of the staunchest antiwar 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. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a member of the House’s influential 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 crucial votes to pass the House bill last month when most abandoned their demand that the measure set a faster timetable 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 (D-Minn.), a freshman lawmaker who ran on an antiwar platform last year.
But Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma) -- a co-founder of the Out of Iraq Caucus who voted against the House bill last month because she said it did not go far enough -- said she was preparing for the next battle.
She said she would be focusing on upcoming bills providing annual funding for the Department of Defense “as a means of bringing our troops to their families by Christmas,” she said.
Congress will probably take up those pieces of crucial legislation, which are needed to continue funding the war, in coming months.
Pelosi and Reid said they planned to send the president a compromise emergency funding bill next week.
What remains unclear is how the quarrel over Bush’s request for about $103 billion in emergency funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will play out, even if Congress sends the president a bill closer to the weaker Senate version.