In a direct challenge to President Bush, House Democrats unveiled legislation Thursday requiring the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the fall of next year.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the deadline would be added to legislation providing nearly $100 billion the Bush administration has requested for fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
She told reporters the measure would mark the first time the new Democratic-controlled Congress has established a "date certain" for the end of U.S. combat in the four-year-old war that has claimed the lives of more than 3,100 U.S. troops.
The White House had no immediate reaction, although Bush has repeatedly rejected talk of establishing a deadline for troop withdrawals.
Within an hour of Pelosi's news conference, House Republican Leader John Boehner attacked the measure. He said Democrats were proposing legislation that amounted to "establishing and telegraphing to our enemy a timetable" that would result in failure of the U.S. military mission in Iraq.
"Gen. (David) Petraeus should be the one making the decisions on what happens on the ground in Iraq, not Nancy Pelosi or John Murtha," the Ohio Republican added. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, has been heavily involved in crafting legislation designed to end U.S., participation in the war.
According to an explanation of the measure distributed by Democratic aides, the timetable for withdrawal would be accelerated if the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did not meet goals for providing for Iraq's security.
Democrats won control of Congress last fall in midterm elections shadowed by public opposition to the war, and have vowed since taking power to challenge Bush's policies.
Pelosi made her announcement as Senate Democrats reviewed a different approach -- a measure that would set a goal of a troop withdrawal by March of 2008. Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada called a closed-door meeting of the rank-and-file to consider the measure.
In the House, Pelosi and the leadership have struggled in recent days to come up with an approach on the war that would satisfy liberals reluctant to vote for continued funding without driving away more moderate Democrats unwilling to be seen as tying the hands of military commanders.
The decision to impose conditions on the war risks a major confrontation with the Bush administration and its Republican allies in Congress.
But without a unified party, the Democratic leadership faced the possibility of a highly embarrassing defeat when the spending legislation reaches a vote, likely later this month.
Sweetening the pot
To make the overall measure more attractive politically, Democrats also intend to add $1.2 billion to Bush's request for military operations in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is expected to mount a spring offensive.
The bill also would add $3.5 billion to Bush's request for veterans' health care and medical programs for active duty troops at facilities such as the scandal-scarred Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington.
Democrats also proposed $735 million for a health care program for low-income children. The program is popular among governors of both political parties, but the administration has not signaled its acquiescence to the additional money.
As described by Democrats, the legislation will require Bush to certify by July 1 and again by Oct. 1. whether the Iraqi government is making progress toward providing for the country's security, allocating its oil revenues and creating a fair system for amending its constitution.
They said if Bush certified the Iraqis were meeting these so-called benchmarks, U.S. combat troops would have to begin withdrawing by March 1, 2008, and complete the redeployment by Sept. 1.
Otherwise, the deadlines would move up.
If Bush cannot make the required certification by July 1, troops must begin a six-month withdrawal immediately. If Bush cannot make the second certification, the same six-month timetable would apply.
The legislation also requires the Pentagon to adhere to its existing standards for equipping and training U.S. troops sent overseas and for providing time at home between tours of combat.
Pelosi said the provision was designed to make sure the government would "not be sending our troops into battle without the proper training, the proper equipment."
Yet it also permits Bush to issue waivers of these standards. Democrats described the waiver provision as an attempt to embarrass the president into adhering to the standards. But they concede the overall effect would be to permit the administration to proceed with plans to deploy five additional combat brigades to the Baghdad area over the next few months.
The measure emerged from days of private talks among Democrats following the collapse of Rep. John Murtha's original proposal, which would have required the Pentagon to meet readiness and training standards without the possibility of a waiver.
Murtha, D-Pa., and chairman of a House Appropriations military subcommittee, said its implementation would have starved the war effort of troops because the Pentagon would not have been able to find enough fully rested, trained and equipped units to meet its needs.
Several moderate Democrats spoke out against it, though. And Republicans sharply attacked it as the abandonment of troops already in the war zone.