WASHINGTON — President Bush expressed frustration on Tuesday with the congressional debate on Iraq war spending and accused majority-party Democrats of being “more interested in fighting political battles in Washington than providing our troops what they need.”
He also chided the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for visiting Syria, saying it sent mixed signals to the government of President Bashar Assad.
Bush, speaking with reporters in the Rose Garden of the White House, renewed his veto threats on both House and Senate spending bills.
The president, condemning the “political dance” of protracted funding debate, threw down the gauntlet to a recalcitrant Democratic Congress, challenging the body to send him an Iraq spending bill he could sign by mid-May “without strings and without delay.”
“If Congress does not act, the Army may have to delay formation of new combat teams,” he said. The president called it "irresponsible for the Democratic leadership" to continue delaying the funding for the war.
“That is unacceptable to me, and I believe it's unacceptable to the American people,” he said.
“Debating these differences should not come at the expense of our troops,” Bush said. “Congress shouldn’t tell generals how to run the war.”
“Delays beyond April and into May will affect the readiness of the American military. Enough politics,” he said.
He noted that it had been 57 days since he requested more than $100 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They left for spring break without finishing their work,” Bush said, referring to Congress.
‘The will of the American people’
Meanwhile, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., criticized Bush for his plan to veto the measure.
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“This is vetoing the will of the American people,” she said. “It is time for us to get them out of the middle of this sectarian civil war.”
Clinton began her day by joining former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and his wife, Christie, for breakfast at their Mount Pleasant home. Clinton hopes to build support for her presidential campaign by joining the Vilsacks, who endorsed her last week.
Battle on the Hill
Bush and Congress have been wrestling for the upper hand in the Iraq war debate, with neither side willing to back down and a top Democrat saying for the first time he wants to withdraw money for combat.
The president's remarks came one day after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who previously has stopped short of saying he would support measures to cut off funds, announced he would try to eliminate money for the war if Bush rejects Congress' proposal to set a deadline to end combat.
The House and Senate are preparing to send Bush a bill by the end of the month that would approve some $96 billion in new money for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also set an end date to combat in Iraq. The House wants to order troops out by September 2008, whereas the Senate wants troops to begin leaving right away and set a nonbinding goal of ending combat operations on March 31, 2008; Bush has promised to veto the legislation.
"If the president vetoes the supplemental appropriations bill and continues to resist changing course in Iraq, I will work to ensure this legislation receives a vote in the Senate in the next work period," Reid said in a statement.
Forcing Bush's hand
Reid spokesman Jim Manley said the bill to cut off funds for the war would likely be introduced as standalone legislation and would not be tied to the supplemental spending bill.
Reid's proposal would be the most extreme and divisive measure to be considered by Democrats to try to force Bush's hand on the war.
Most Republicans and many conservative Democratic senators, including Ben Nelson of Nebraska, have been reluctant to embrace a timetable in Iraq. Nelson agreed last week to swing behind the Senate spending bill, which calls for troops to leave by March 31, 2008, only because the date was nonbinding and not a firm deadline.
Nelson also agreed to vote for the measure because Reid added language Nelson wanted outlining steps the Iraqi government should take to improve stability in Iraq.
Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon Smith of Oregon were the only Republicans who supported the measure.
New Democratic strategy
Reid's promise marks a new shift in strategy for Democrats. Reid was previously reluctant to embrace the suggestion of using Congress' power of the purse and deflected questions on the matter by saying Democrats would provide troops with what they need to be safe.
His latest proposal would give the president one year to get troops out, ending funding for combat operations after March 31, 2008, and allowing troops to conduct only counterterrorism operations, train Iraqi forces and provide security for U.S. infrastructure and personnel.
This latest challenge indicates Reid is likely both frustrated by Bush's insistence on the war and his own shaky majority in Congress. Unable to override a presidential veto because he lacks the necessary two-thirds majority support, Reid is trying to ratchet up the pressure on Bush in the hopes the president will cave.
Displeasure with Pelosi's trip
As Bush spoke, Speaker Pelosi was arriving in Damascus, a trip that the president said was ill-advised.
“A lot of people have gone to see President Assad....and yet we haven’t seen action. He hasn’t responded,” Bush told reporters from the Rose Garden.
He said Assad had not reined in violent elements of militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah as requested by the international community and had acted to destabilize the democratically elected government of Lebanon.
“Sending delegations doesn’t work. It’s simply been counterproductive,” Bush said.
Pelosi is leading a high-level congressional delegation that is touring the Middle East.
Pelosi has shrugged off White House criticism of her visit to Damascus, saying it was an “excellent idea” for her and other lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans alike — to go to Syria. The White House has said the administration objects to all visits to Syria by high-ranking officials.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.