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House Democrats OK troop pullout plan

Times Staff Writer

Defiant and unified in the face of a promised presidential veto, House Democrats on Wednesday pushed through an emergency war spending bill that orders President Bush to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq no later than 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 legislation 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’ healthcare and other nonmilitary programs.

Missing the suspense of congressional war debates earlier this year, Wednesday’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 probably will never become law.

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

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

Thirteen Democrats broke with the party on the vote Wednesday, amid efforts by the president and his congressional allies to cast the bill’s supporters as reckless and “defeatist.” Two Republicans voted for the bill.

“The White House misjudges the resolve of our members if the president thinks we’re going to roll over on this,” said Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Atwater), a former co-chairman of the conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, whose members provided crucial support for the bill.

“We’re pretty offended by his rhetoric,” Cardoza said.

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

After the briefing, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Petraeus told lawmakers that imposing timelines could compromise the military initiative underway in Iraq. In public comments after the briefing, however, the general declined to discuss the Democratic timelines.

Petraeus noted progress fighting terrorists and quelling sectarian violence but acknowledged remaining challenges facing the U.S. and Iraqi governments. “We obviously have work to do,” Petraeus said, pointing specifically to the persistent suicide bombings, which have killed hundreds in recent weeks.

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 (D-Mich.).

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 Wednesday, if Bush fails to certify that the Iraqi government is making progress on a series of “reconciliation initiatives” -- including disarming militias, amending the constitution and equitably dividing oil revenue among the country’s ethnic and sectarian groups -- withdrawals must begin July 1.

The plan then sets a nonbinding goal of completing the withdrawal within 180 days, an end-date of Dec. 27.

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

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

Highlighting the military’s growing readiness problem, 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 (D-San Francisco) said on the House floor. “It winds down the war by providing for the responsible redeployment of our combat forces.”

Boehner, who has also 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.

Last month, Democratic leaders were struggling to pull together their members behind a single plan as moderates questioned the wisdom of putting conditions on the military and antiwar lawmakers demanded legislation to bring the troops home by year’s end.

Outside Washington, the antiwar movement, a key part of the Democratic base, was turning on party leaders for dawdling. But Wednesday, conservative Democrats lined up with some of the most liberal lawmakers in Congress to back the plan hammered out by party leaders.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), one of the party’s leading political strategists, attributed the unity to the support members received from their constituents after they agreed to impose timelines last month.

“Moderates didn’t have to pay a political price at home. There wasn’t this backlash. If anything, they got slaps on the back,” Emanuel said. “And for liberals, they saw the energy from our supporters that we voted for timelines.... So, everybody’s worst fears were not realized.”

Indeed, polls show widespread public support for congressional action to bring U.S. troops home.

At the same time, many liberal lawmakers have decided to back a measure they don’t believe goes far enough, knowing that voting against it would effectively hand the White House a victory.

“It’s the only thing we’ve got,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), a member of the Out of Iraq Caucus. “What am I going to do? Vote with the president?”

Many antiwar groups, which have coordinated with antiwar lawmakers, have also made a conscious decision to focus on pressuring Republicans rather than taking Democrats to task for not pushing for an immediate withdrawal.

“They think we are going to freak out and start attacking Democrats,” said Tom Matzzie, Washington director of the influential MoveOn.org. “That’s not going to happen.”

MoveOn.org and other liberal groups are running a multimillion-dollar campaign targeting Republican lawmakers in their districts for backing the president’s war policies.

noam.levey@latimes.com


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