On the surface, there’s not much suspense about what happens next in the battle between President Bush and Democratic lawmakers over the war in Iraq. Bush says he will veto the $124-billion war spending bill passed by both houses of Congress last week that requires him to begin withdrawing troops this year; when he does, Democrats say, they will protest and then send him the money without binding conditions.
That noisy script, however, is just a prelude to a debate -- under conditions likely to be more difficult for Bush -- that could turn into a decisive moment for the course of the war.
To buy time for his buildup of more than 28,000 troops to show results, Bush asked his commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, to deliver a progress report to the nation in early September.
That helped stave off Republican defections as Congress debated whether to impose a timetable for troop withdrawals. But it also established September as a deadline for clearer military and political progress in Iraq, a tactical concession for a White House that long has refused to accept any benchmarks or timetables for evaluating the war, now 4 years old.
Democratic and Republican members of Congress already are focusing on September as their next major decision point on the war -- planning hearings to debate Petraeus’ findings and, in the Democrats’ case, promising new attempts to force Bush to withdraw troops.
By September, the troop buildup will have been underway for more than six months. Unless there is dramatic improvement in Iraq, public support for the war will probably have eroded further. And by September, skittish Republicans will be four months closer to starting their reelection campaigns.
Petraeus, who calls himself “a qualified optimist” on the war, has warned that his report may not satisfy anyone who wants a purely bullish assessment.
“People always want to get a sense of thumbs up or thumbs down,” he said in an interview last week. “What I’d like to provide is a nuanced paragraph. And what we’ll end up with is something in between.”
But nuances may no longer be enough to keep Republicans from breaking ranks. GOP leaders warn that they will need dramatic evidence of progress -- something that has been in short supply in Iraq -- to maintain support for the war.
“We need to get some better results from Iraq both politically, economically and militarily, and that needs to happen in the foreseeable future,” said House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a Bush administration loyalist.
Several moderate Republicans have warned that they are preparing to switch sides unless the troop “surge” shows results.
“If the president’s new strategy does not demonstrate significant results by August, then Congress should consider all options -- including a redefinition of our mission and a gradual but significant withdrawal of our troops next year,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who last week voted against the withdrawal bill.
Democrats acknowledge that they are a long way from amassing the two-thirds majority needed in the House and Senate to override a presidential veto on any future war legislation. But they note that if a significant number of Republicans join them in supporting a withdrawal of combat troops, the pressure on Bush will increase.
“The deadline to start [a withdrawal] is going to be driven by the facts on the ground and public opinion, rather than legislation,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a leading member of the House’s Out of Iraq caucus. “By August or September ... they will be overwhelmed by the facts.”
Dramatic improvements in Iraq are unlikely in the next few months, said Anthony H. Cordesman, a scholar at the independent Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“All September can do is provide a preliminary assessment of the surge in Baghdad,” he said. “There’s a tendency in Washington to try to get everything done by 2008. But a lot of this [military effort] has to go on to 2010 or 2013 if you’re going to succeed. Only failure is quick.”
Despite growing disaffection for the war among Republican moderates, the majority of the GOP caucus held together last week. Only four lawmakers, two in the Senate and two in the House, crossed the aisle to support the Democratic withdrawal plan. And GOP leaders continued to use the same language as the president to attack the legislation.
But Rep. Jo Ann Emerson -- a Republican from a southeastern Missouri district that voted nearly 2 to 1 for Bush in 2004 -- voted “present” rather than oppose the plan.
“There is a lot of frustration with the administration on the Republican side,” said one GOP House member who has voted against every Democratic measure on Iraq but asked not to be quoted by name to avoid angering the White House.
In the aftermath of the troop withdrawal votes, Democratic leaders tried to keep the focus on the White House, challenging the president to accede to public opinion and sign their bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who has become the administration’s leading antagonist in the war debate, threw down the gauntlet again after his chamber’s vote Thursday.
“The president has a choice,” Reid said. “Heed the call of the American people, a bipartisan majority of Congress, military experts, to change course -- or keep our troops committed to an open-ended civil war. The choice is an easy one.”
If Bush follows through on his veto threat, senior Democratic lawmakers have said they will pass an emergency funding bill that does not include the withdrawal timelines the president has complained so vociferously about.
Such a measure, however, almost certainly would include readiness standards for the strained military. It would also outline benchmarks the Iraqi government must meet to demonstrate progress in reconciling differences between the country’s sectarian communities.
The administration opposes benchmarks that would impose penalties on Iraq if it does not meet them on time.
“To begin now to tie our own hands and to say, ‘We must do this if they don’t do that,’ doesn’t allow us the flexibility and creativity that we need to move this forward,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
But benchmarks have gained support among Republicans who voice increasing frustration over the Iraqi government’s failure to complete long-promised political reforms: a new law apportioning the country’s oil revenue, a relaxation of rules banning members of the overthrown Baath Party from government jobs, and elections to set up provincial governments.
“We’ve got to get [more] aggressive on pushing the political solution,” Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a supporter of the war, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “We’ve got to push them very hard. And our timelines, I think, are very short.... I don’t know if [September] is the time to set, but I don’t think we have infinite time.”
U.S. military leaders in Baghdad say that in the months before the September evaluation, their priorities include prodding Iraqi sects toward political compromise and stopping the car bombings that have killed hundreds this year.
Some analysts think that neither Shiite nor Sunni leaders will be willing to cut deals on the reconciliation legislation before the level of violence declines.
Petraeus said the troop buildup had succeeded in reducing death-squad executions by about two-thirds.
But because of a Sunni bombing campaign, the overall level of violence and killings has remained the same.
And military planners worry that if they cannot reduce the number of bomb attacks, Shiite death squads that have been on the sidelines since January will return to the fight, sending the number of deaths skyrocketing.
Times staff writers Julian E. Barnes and Noam Levey contributed to this report.