Who will cave in on Iraq funding?

House Democratic Leadership Holds Press Conference After Iraq Vote
After the House passed its Iraq bill Friday, Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., spoke as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders stood listening at his side.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
/ Source: msnbc.com

Who will back down, President Bush or the Democrats? With funds for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan running low, the Congress and the president have begun a wrestling match. One side or the other must submit.

The House last week passed an Iraq funding bill, but attached limits to it that would make it difficult for Bush to maintain soldiers there, and would force withdrawal of at least some troops by August 2008.

Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a top adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, made clear after Friday’s House vote that Democrats think they have the upper hand. He said the president might not even veto the House bill — despite Bush’s vow to do so.

“This money is desperately needed. Don’t think he has all the leverage,” Murtha said, referring to Bush. “They need the money, so I’m not sure they’ll be willing to veto this bill.”

Murtha implied that Bush’s veto threat wasn’t credible: “Has he said a few things that haven’t turned out be accurate before, huh?”

Keep the deadline in the bill?
The Pennsylvania Democrat also said he’d insist on keeping the August 2008 deadline in the bill when he and House leaders bargain with the Senate.

But what if the Senate removes or softens the deadline? “That’s their problem,” he said, referring to the Senate and Bush. “I’m not going to go over there (to the Senate) and say, ‘OK, you guys can’t pass it.’ We (the House) passed a deadline. They are going to have to face that problem,” Murtha said.

The bill would allow Bush to keep an unspecified number of troops in Iraq after August 2008 if they were on counterterrorism missions. On Friday Pelosi sidestepped a reporter’s question on whether that feature of the bill would give Bush free rein to keep thousands there after the ostensible deadline. “We're not going into numbers,” she said.

Here’s what happens now: as the Senate debates the bill this week, Republicans will try to cut a provision proposed by Majority Leader Harry Reid that would set a goal of withdrawal by early next year.

In a vote two weeks ago, Reid got only 47 other senators to support his goal. It’s not clear he’d be able to drum up the 12 additional senators he’d need to meet the necessary 60-vote threshold.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R- Neb., said he’ll offer his own amendment dealing with an exit strategy but did not explain whether he had a specific date in mind or merely a goal.

Since the House bill and the Senate’s are certain to be different, a House-Senate conference will meet to negotiate a compromise. If what emerges from that conference doesn’t include the House-passed deadline and restrictions on deployment of troops, then antiwar House members will face a choice: Should they vote for the funds without a deadline, or with a much-weakened one?

Bush wants a bill 'without restrictions'
“They need to send me a clean bill, without conditions, without restrictions, and without pork,” Bush said Saturday.

Most Capitol Hill observers think that such a “clean” bill would pass the House with the support of most of the 201 Republicans and some of the 233 Democrats.

But maybe a clean bill won’t ever get to a vote in the House. Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell speculated that if the compromise that emerges is one with no exit date or a watered-down one, Pelosi might not allow the compromise bill to come to a vote.

Bush’s allies are trying to re-frame this debate as one over spending unrelated to Iraq: in the House bill are $400 million for schools in the Pacific Northwest, $1.3 billion for New Orleans hurricane rebuilding, $239 million for aid to Baltic nations and Eastern Europe, $25 million for spinach growers, and “such sums as are necessary” to compensate ranchers in Colorado and other states for livestock losses due to hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and blizzards.

A possible compromise?
Senate Republican Whip Trent Lott offered his surmise Friday on the Democrats’ endgame: perhaps they’ll compromise with Bush by dumping the deadline and the restrictions on troop deployment — in return for the president agreeing to the billions for Colorado ranchers, Louisiana levees, Pacific Northwest schools, and the rest of the largesse.

“I’m not interested in pushing this toward a train wreck; I’m interested in negotiating a positive outcome and I realize it’s a process of negotiation and compromise” said one key swing vote in the Senate, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. “The goals are to fund the troops, protect the troops, nudge the president in a different direction, and get adequate funding particularly for levees and reduce the red tape for Katrina recovery so we can actually recover.”

She said she’d oppose the House-passed restrictions that would limit deployments of soldiers in Iraq to 365 days and Marines to 210 days. “I don’t believe we can micromanage this war or under-fund the troops.”