Democrats give up Iraq deadline
Congressional Democratic leaders Tuesday dropped their insistence that the Iraq war-spending bill include a timeline for U.S. troop withdrawal, clearing the way to end a lengthy standoff with President Bush.
The measure will include benchmarks that the Baghdad government must meet to continue to receive U.S. reconstruction aid, although the president will be allowed to waive those requirements.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) characterized the compromise as progress in the Democratic drive to bring the U.S. combat role in Iraq to an end, saying the bill was not a “blank check.”
The House and Senate are expected to vote this week on the approximately $120-billion bill, which funds military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, before they take a week off for the Memorial Day holiday.
A number of strongly antiwar Democrats are expected to oppose the measure, so it will need Republican support to pass.
“There has been a lot of tough talk from members of Congress about wanting to end this war, but it looks like the desire for political comfort won out over real action,” Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) said.
When House Democratic leaders presented the plan at their weekly caucus meeting, freshmen and members of the Out of Iraq Caucus complained vociferously about the lack of a timeline, according to party aides who were not authorized to discuss the meeting.
Antiwar groups that stood behind the Democrats as they pressed for a withdrawal also expressed disappointment. “It is remarkable that they can’t stand up to President Bush and his war,” said Susan Shaer, Win Without War’s national co-chair. She called the bill “another step toward endless war.”
But Democratic leaders say they are dealing with the political realities of having to get money to the troops while lacking the votes to override a presidential veto. Bush earlier this month vetoed a war-spending bill that would have compelled him to begin withdrawing troops no later than Oct. 1, with a goal of completing the pullout by March.
“We can’t pass something without the president’s signature, and the president can’t pass something without our agreement,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). “So we can be at a standoff, and go back and forth with one another, or we can come to an agreement.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), noting that it had been 106 days since the president sent his emergency funding request to Congress, expressed hope that the war-funding bill, “without a surrender date,” would be sent to the president before Memorial Day.
The bill includes benchmarks like those that won the support of 52 senators last week, most of them Republicans. They require the Iraqi government, as a condition for receiving U.S. economic aid, to make progress in stabilizing the country, such as by reducing sectarian violence and passing legislation to equitably distribute oil revenue.
Some details were still being worked out Tuesday. But the emergency war-spending bill is expected to include a number of Democratic priorities before it leaves Congress, including the first minimum wage increase in a decade and money for Gulf Coast hurricane relief, children’s health insurance and agricultural assistance.
The president has insisted that the bill should not include any spending unrelated to the war, dismissing it as pork.
The plan to link reconstruction aid to benchmarks, which was proposed by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, was initially derided by Democrats, who said it was too weak to have any effect on the war.
But Tuesday, Democratic leaders sought to portray it as progress in their efforts to challenge Bush on the war. And they vowed to continue their efforts to try to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. This bill would fund the war through Sept. 30.
“We will continue to be pressing the issue,” said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “And I would predict in the coming months there will be more and more people coming our way in terms of demanding a change in that Iraqi policy.”
Times staff writer Noam N. Levey contributed to this report.