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Bush vetoes Democrats’ Iraq war bill

Times Staff Writers

President Bush vetoed a Democratic war spending bill Tuesday that would have compelled him to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, a move that came exactly four years after he triumphantly landed on an aircraft carrier to announce the end of “major combat operations.”

“Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a date for failure, and that would be irresponsible,” Bush said.

On a day rich with symbolism, the president fulfilled his veto threat in the White House’s main hall, hours after the House and Senate majority leaders sent Bush the legislation after a rare signing ceremony of their own.

Democrats condemned Bush’s action and accused him of misrepresenting their legislation.

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“If the president thinks by vetoing this bill he’ll stop us from working to change the direction of the war in Iraq, he is mistaken,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

The veto -- the second of Bush’s presidency and the first since Democrats assumed power in January -- closed one chapter in the showdown between Congress and the president over the future of the war. And it opened another as Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill scrambled to chart their next moves.

Democratic leaders are weighing a new spending bill that would remove the timelines Bush has complained about but retain a series of benchmarks designed to pressure the Iraqi government to take steps to reduce sectarian strife.

The $124-billion measure to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would have required Bush to begin withdrawing troops no later than Oct. 1, with a goal of completing the pullout by March.

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Republicans -- uneasy with their president but opposed to a withdrawal plan -- appear increasingly willing to back some form of benchmarks, although party leaders would not discuss specifics. GOP lawmakers in the past have balked at any benchmarks that would include deadlines or consequences for missing them.

The fourth anniversary of one of the most theatrical moments of the Bush presidency was dominated by a battle for control of imagery between the president and his congressional adversaries.

Bush left Washington in the morning on Air Force One to spend the day at the military’s Central Command in Tampa, Fla., the nerve center of U.S. operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

White House officials said the trip had no connection to the anniversary of Bush’s 2003 speech, which he delivered on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln off San Diego -- in front of sailors and pilots and an enormous, now infamous, banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished.”

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At that time, 139 Americans had died in Iraq and two-thirds of Americans approved of the president’s job performance. Since then, 3,213 more service members have died in Iraq and only a third of the public thinks Bush is doing a good job.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino testily reminded reporters that the president never actually said “mission accomplished.”

“That speech has been widely misconstrued,” she said.

But on a day when a steady stream of congressional Democrats took to lecterns on the House and Senate floors to ridicule the speech, Bush’s schedule seemed designed to showcase his role as commander in chief.

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After landing at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, the president received a briefing from top commanders. He delivered remarks to representatives of countries who have forces in Iraq. And he held private meetings with families of military personnel killed in the war.

“Failure in Iraq should be unacceptable to the civilized world,” Bush told the allied military officers, linking the “war on terrorism” to the 20th century fights against fascism and communism.

Al Qaeda terrorists “murder the innocent to advance a focused and clear ideology,” he said. “They seek to establish a radical Islamic caliphate so they can impose a brutal new order on unwilling people, much as Nazis and communists sought to do in the last century.”

Bush acknowledged that sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims had forced the United States to increase troop levels in Iraq. But he said gains in the region were evident, citing successes in breaking up terrorist networks. And he expressed optimism that the turmoil would give way to historic progress.

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“I believe that one day future generations will look back at this time ... and they will be awed by what our coalition has helped to build,” Bush said.

While Bush was casting himself in a Churchillian role in his Florida appearance, his congressional opponents staged their own theater in Washington.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Reid called television cameras to one of Pelosi’s ornate rooms in the Capitol for a ceremony to officially complete action on the spending bill passed by the House and Senate last week, an event that usually goes unheralded.

“Mindful of our responsibility to the Constitution and to the American people, I am pleased to join in signing this Iraq legislation, which is so important to our national security,” Pelosi said, an arrangement of American flags as her backdrop.

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She dismissed suggestions that Democrats had timed the unusual event to coincide with the four-year anniversary of Bush’s speech.

“This is the first day that I could sign the bill,” Pelosi said, explaining that she had been in Los Angeles on Monday for the funeral of Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Carson).

House Republican leaders scoffed at the event.

“We want to move beyond the political theater,” Minority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri said during the GOP’s own event on a terrace outside a Capitol office building, where they struggled to be heard over the whine of a construction crane.

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But the president was able to lay claim to the last act Tuesday.

An hour after he returned from Florida, Bush called television cameras to the White House.

Flanked by an American and presidential flag with the Jefferson Memorial visible through a window, he again accused Democrats of playing politics with vital funding for troops.

Bush has used his veto power just once before, when he blocked a bill last year that would have expanded federal support for embryonic stem cell research.

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The House is expected today to try to override the president’s veto, but Democrats concede they will fall far short of the two-thirds necessary.

Democratic congressional leaders also are scheduled to meet this afternoon with Bush to begin negotiations on a new version of the war spending bill.

noam.levey@latimes.com

maura.reynolds@latimes.com

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Levey reported from Washington and Reynolds from Tampa.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Veto power

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Before his showdown with Congress on the Iraq war spending bill, President Bush had issued just one veto, on a measure to lift restrictions on federal money for embryonic stem cell research. A look at the vetoes of other presidents over the last eight decades:

Bill Clinton (1993-2001)

37 vetoes, two overridden

George H.W. Bush (1989-93)

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44 vetoes, one overridden

Ronald Reagan (1981-89)

78 vetoes, nine overridden

Jimmy Carter (1977-81)

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31 vetoes, two overridden

Gerald Ford (1974-77)

66 vetoes, 12 overridden

Richard Nixon (1969-74)

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43 vetoes, seven overridden

Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-69)

30 vetoes, none overridden

John F. Kennedy (1961-63)

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21 vetoes, none overridden

Dwight Eisenhower (1953-61)

181 vetoes, two overridden

Harry Truman (1945-53)

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250 vetoes, 12 overridden

Franklin D. Roosevelt

(1933-45)

635 vetoes, nine overridden

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Source: Associated Press

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Bush and the Iraq war

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It has been four years since President Bush declared the end of “major combat operations” in Iraq. Here’s a look at the monthly death toll of U.S. troops in Iraq, and the president’s approval ratings since then:

Bush’s approval ratings

(Among all adults)

April 2003: 68

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March 2004: 51

Jan. 2005: 50

April 2006: 39

April 2007: 36

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Sources: L.A. Times, L.A. Times/Bloomberg polls, icasualties.org


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