President Bush used his veto pen for only the second time Tuesday after Congress sent him a war spending bill that would impose timelines to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, which he called a “prescription for chaos.”
The bill is unacceptable because it “substitutes the opinions of politicians for the judgments of our military commanders,” the president said in a nationally televised address to explain why he was vetoing a bill that would also provide more than $100 billion in emergency spending for the war.
“This is a prescription for chaos and confusion, and we must not impose it on our troops,” Bush said. “... It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing.”
Bush blamed Democrats for trying to send an empty political statement and added: “They’ve sent their message, and now it’s time to put politics behind us and support our troops with the funds.”
Bush’s dramatic statement came only a few hours after Democratic leaders of Congress staged a festive ceremony at the Capitol to celebrate sending the bill to the president. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused Bush of putting U.S. troops “in the middle of a civil war” in Iraq.
Override bid likely to fail
The House scheduled a vote to try to override the veto for Wednesday, but Democratic leaders were not expected to have enough Republican support to succeed. Congressional leaders will meet with Bush at the White House on Wednesday to discuss follow-up legislation.
Democrats are considering a bill that would fund the troops but still restrict the president’s leeway in Iraq. Democratic leaders told NBC News they expected such a proposal to drive away some Democrats who have come under intense pressure from liberal activist groups to accept nothing less than a troop withdrawal.
The officials acknowledged that such a strategy would force them to seek Republican support for any alternative, and Senate Republican leaders told NBC News that they might be open to legislation that would set benchmarks of progress for the Iraqi government to meet.
“There are some types of benchmarks that might well achieve bipartisan support and might actually even conceivably be helpful to the efforts in Iraq,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
But Republicans were reluctant to say whether they supported benchmarks with real consequences. Some said they would support tying benchmarks to foreign aid to Iraq totaling more than $5 billion but nothing that would tie the hands of military commanders.
“It depends on what the benchmarks are and what the consequences are,” said Trent Lott of Mississippi, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate.
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Democrats go on the offensive
Democratic leaders accused Bush of disregarding the wishes of Congress and the public by refusing to consider ending the U.S. involvement in Iraq.
“The president wants a blank check. The Congress is not going to give it to him,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said after Bush’s speech. “If the president thinks by vetoing this bill he’ll stop us from working to change the course of the war in Iraq, he is mistaken.”
Reid contended that Bush had rejected a measure that would “fully fund the troops” and asserted, “Now he has a responsibility to explain his plan to responsibly end this war.”
The leading Democratic contenders for president also weighed in, calling on Bush to accept the need for a troop withdrawal.
“With one stroke of his pen, President Bush has stubbornly ignored the will of the American people, the majority of Congress and, most disturbingly, the realities on the ground in Iraq,” said Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
Noting that the bill also included $35 million for new homeland security initiatives, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., called on Bush to “stop disregarding the will of the American people and to work with Democrats on a funding bill that will enable us to begin redeploying our troops.”
Former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., put pressure on congressional Republicans to stand up to Bush, challenging them to “stand firm and strong.”
“Congress should answer the president’s veto by sending him another bill with a timetable for withdrawal. And if he vetoes that one, Congress should send him another and another until we end this war and bring our troops home,” he said.
4th anniversary of ‘Mission Accomplished’
Bush has vetoed legislation only once before in nearly 6½ years in office. Last July, he killed a bill that would have loosened restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research.
Coincidentally or not, the new showdown comes on the fourth anniversary of Bush’s so-called Mission Accomplished speech aboard an aircraft carrier.
“It is a trumped-up political stunt that is the height of cynicism,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. “It is very disturbing to think that they possibly held up this money for the troops and troops’ families and the resources that they need to try some PR stunt on this day.”
Pelosi denied that the timing was intentional. She told reporters that she was attending the funeral of Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, D-Calif., on Monday and was unavailable to sign the submission until Tuesday.
By MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson with NBC’s Chip Reid and Mike Viqueira in Washington.