President Bush, prodding Congress to extend the Iraq war without calling troops home, said Monday that Democratic leaders owe it to veterans and their families to pass the war-spending bill he wants.
"Listen, I understand Republicans and Democrats in Washington have differences over the best course in Iraq," Bush said from the White House. "That's healthy. That's normal, and we should debate those differences. But our troops should not be caught in the middle."
Surrounded by families of veterans, Bush sought to set expectations for his meeting Wednesday with congressional leaders of both parties. In particular, he aimed to pressure Democratic lawmakers to fund the war without trying to limit or wind down the military mission.
"That's what we're supposed to do - we're supposed to talk out our differences," Bush said. "I'm looking forward to the meeting. I hope the Democratic leadership will drop their unreasonable demands for a precipitous withdrawal."
Both the House and Senate have passed bills to both fund the war and start drawing troops home. They are expected this to week to begin negotiating a final version to send to Bush. He has pledged to veto it if it is not stripped of the provisions he opposes.
Stubborness vs. stubborness
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid responded that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney "refuse to listen or acknowledge the other voices. They are isolated in their thinking, and are failing our troops and our country."
Reid, D-Nev., indicated he would be just as stubborn during Wednesday's meeting with the president.
"The offer is that the president sign the bill," he said.
Bush spoke in the orate East Room surrounded by mothers and fathers, husbands and wives and sons and daughters of U.S. troops who have been killed in Iraq. Members of military service support organizations filled out the crowd.
The president said he would deliver their message to Congress - as he put it, U.S. troops "want to finish the job."
"The families gathered here understand that we are a nation at war," Bush said. "Like me, they wish we weren't at war, but we are. They know that the enemies who attacked us on September the 11th, 2001, want to bring further destruction to our country."
Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, responded that Bush and Republican congressional leaders have abandoned efforts to hold the Iraqi people and government accountable.
"As they rush to embrace the Bush plan for more of the same in Iraq, the Republican policy is to make U.S troops bear the full burden of the war on their shoulders," Emanuel said.
The Senate bill would require a U.S. troop exit in Iraq to begin within 120 days, with a completion goal of March 31, 2008. The House bill would order all combat troops out by Sept. 1, 2008. Most Republicans stand with Bush on grounds that a timetable is a dangerous war policy.
In the same breath, Bush offered to discuss "any way forward" with Congress and declared what he would not accept - restrictions on his military commanders, timetables for troops to come home, or billions of dollars in emergency spending unrelated to the war.
He said Democrats are the ones who should put partisanship on hold. "We should not legislate defeat in this vital war," Bush said.
Bush told the military families that he had just spoken with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "He said, 'Please thank the people in the White House for their sacrifices, and we will continue to work hard to be an ally in this war on terror,' " Bush said.
A 'clean bill ' predicted
Cheney, meanwhile, predicted that Democrats will be forced to cave.
In an interview broadcast Sunday, Cheney said Congress will end up passing a "clean" bill that funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without any troop withdrawal timetables. Democrats do not appear to have the votes to override a presidential veto.
"They will not leave the troops in the field without the resources they need," Cheney said of the Democrats.
Asked what would happen if they don't back down, Cheney said, "I'm willing to bet the other way - that, in fact, they will."
Sen. Carl Levin, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, told reporters in Michigan Monday that Democrats would likely opt to replace the withdrawal language with a "softer version" if Bush vetoes the initial bill.
Levin said the second bill would likely tie U.S.. economic and military support to the Iraqi government meeting performance benchmarks.
Iraq's leadership is struggling to make the progress it has promised on political reconciliation, distribution of the country's oil wealth and other vital goals.