President Bush would veto any bill drafted by House Democratic leaders that would fund the Iraq war only into summer, his spokesman said Wednesday, even as the Pentagon held out hope that troops could begin withdrawing if the Iraqi government makes progress by fall.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Senate committee that if violence in Iraq declines enough to allow the government to move forward, including steps toward political reconciliation, the U.S. could begin pulling troops out.
The Pentagon, said Gates, is "looking for the direction of events - we don't have to have it all locked in place and everything complete ... If (we) see some very positive progress and it looks like things are heading in the right direction, then that's the point at which I think we can begin to consider reducing some of those forces."
He added that "getting the level of violence in Iraq to point where the political process can go forward and seeing some progress in reconciliation sets the stage for us to begin withdrawing our units ... and allowing those security responsibilities to be assumed by the Iraqis."
September Iraq assessment
Senators pressed Gates on reports that commanders in Iraq may want to wait until next April to make an assessment of the buildup. But Gates insisted that the evaluation will be in September, although he added that he didn't know what the result would be.
"What are the prospects for having some light at the end of the tunnel, to see some encouragement which would enable the Congress to have the fortitude to support the president and go beyond September and the full funding of the $500 billion?" asked Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
Gates replied, "I think that the honest answer is, Senator, that I don't know."
Gates also told the panel that proposals for a short-term funding bill would be very disruptive and "have a huge impact" on contracts to repair and replace equipment. The Defense Department, he said, just doesn't "have the agility to manage a two month appropriation."
"I essentially have 10,000 faucets all running money," Gates said. "Turning them on and off with precision and on a day-to-day basis, or even a month-to-month basis, gets very difficult." And, he said that if Congress votes again in July, but rejects the funding bill, "I would have to shut down significant elements of the Department of Defense in August and September because I wouldn't have the money to pay salaries."
Iraq funding negotiations continue
The Democrats' proposal would pay for the war through July, then give Congress the option of cutting off money after that if conditions do not improve. Bush requested more than $90 billion to fund the war through September.
"There are restrictions on funding and there are also some of the spending items that were mentioned in the first veto message that are still in the bill," White House press secretary Tony Snow said on Air Force One traveling with Bush.
Asked directly if Bush would veto the House bill in its current form, Snow said, "Yes."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said White House chief of staff Josh Bolten had "another good meeting" with Senate leaders on the matter.
"We remain hopeful we can achieve a deal, and the president's chief of staff remains open to meeting with anyone, anytime, anywhere to bring closure to this process," she said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., emerged from the closed-door meeting to say no deal was struck.
Bolten's meeting Wednesday with Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., lasted about an hour, and revealed a slightly different tone and approach in the Senate than in the House, said a senior administration official who was in the session and spoke on condition of anonymity to speak more freely about private discussions.
The talk was mostly about the process of getting a bill through both chambers and to the president, but there also were some substantive discussions about content that the official would not detail. The White House's view is that Democrats in the Senate and House need to better coordinate where they want to go with a bill, but this is not preventing Bolten from talking about specifics in the meantime, the official said.
Senate-House agreement unlikely
Bush vetoed an earlier bill because it set deadlines for U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq.
The short-term funding bill is backed by House Democrats, but is unlikely to survive the Senate, where Democrats hold a slimmer majority and several of them do not support funding the war in brief installments.
Snow talked with reporters on Air Force One as Bush flew to Kansas to see the devastation from last week's tornado.
In other comments Wednesday, Gates said that the Iraqis are assuming more security responsibilities day by day, but the U.S. cannot abandon the country prematurely. Doing so, he said, would allow al-Qaida terrorists to use Iraq's western Anbar province as a base to plan operations against the United States.