The Democratic-controlled House voted Thursday night to pay for military operations in Iraq on an installment plan, defying President Bush’s threat of a second straight veto in a fierce test of wills over the unpopular war.
The 221-205 vote, largely along party lines, sent the measure to a cool reception in the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is seeking compromise with the White House and Republicans on a funding bill.
Under increasing political pressure from Republicans, Bush also signalled flexibility, offering to accept a spending bill that sets out standards for the Iraqi government to meet.
“Time’s running out, because the longer we wait the more strain we’re going to put on the military,” said the president, who previously had insisted on what he termed a “clean” war funding bill.
Bush and key lawmakers have stepped up expressions of frustration with the government in Baghdad in recent weeks, and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh spent his day in a series of meetings with key senators appealing for patience.
In a brief interview with The Associated Press, Saleh said the purpose of the meetings was to convey the “imperative of success against terrorism and extremism” in the Middle East.
Despite Bush’s ability to sustain his vetoes in Congress — the House upheld his rejection of a troop withdrawal timetable last week — Democrats called for votes on two separate bills Thursday that challenged him on the war.
“Democrats are not going to give the president a blank check for a war without end,” vowed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.
'Flat wrong about Iraq'
The first measure would have required the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq within nine months. It fell, 255-171, with 59 Democrats joining almost all Republicans in opposition.
“This war is a terrible tragedy and it is time to bring it to an end,” said Rep. James McGovern, leading advocate of the bill to establish a nine-month withdrawal timetable. “For four long, deadly years, this administration and their allies in Congress have been flat wrong about Iraq,” said the Massachusetts Democrat.
Republicans argued that a withdrawal would be disastrous.
“Now is not the time to signal retreat and surrender. How could this Congress walk away from our men and women in uniform,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif.
A few hours later, the House passed legislation providing funds for the war grudgingly, in two installments. The first portion would cover costs until Aug. 1 — $42.8 billion to buy equipment and train Iraqi and Afghan security forces.
Under the bill, it would take a summertime vote by Congress to free an additional $52.8 billion, the money needed to cover costs through the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year.
“We reject that idea. It won’t work,” the president declared after a meeting with military leaders at the Pentagon.
Complex political environment
Democratic officials, speaking privately, said Pelosi had agreed to allow the vote on the withdrawal measure in the hope that her rank-and-file would then unite behind the funding bill.
But in an increasingly complex political environment, even that measure was deemed to be dead on arrival in the Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow advantage and the rules give Republicans leverage to block legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has met privately in recent days with White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the beginning of talks aimed at producing a compromise funding bill that Bush would sign.
In a speech in January, Bush listed several goals for the Iraqis, including legislation to share oil revenue among all Iraqis, spending $10 billion on job-creating reconstruction projects, holding provincial elections, overhauling de-Baathification laws and creating a fair process for considering amendments to the constitution.
But in contrast to many lawmakers, the administration has not yet publicly accepted proposals to make future reconstruction funds conditional on Baghdad’s progress in achieving the goals.
Bush and the Democratic leaders were maneuvering in a complicated political environment.
GOP trying to stop future election losses
Republican lawmakers have grown increasingly restive about a war that they believe cost them their congressional majorities in last fall’s elections. In a private meeting with Bush and several key administration officials at the White House, 11 moderate GOP lawmakers bluntly told Bush that the status quo was unsustainable and could mean further election losses next year.
But Pelosi and Reid face obstacles of their own.
They are determined to make sure that essential funding for the war is not cut off. At the same time, they are laboring to keep faith with their own rank-and-file, with the war-weary voters who installed them in power, and with MoveOn.org and other groups whose overriding goal is to force the withdrawal of the U.S. combat troops.
, in particular, has played a key behind-the-scenes role in the months since Congress convened under Democratic majorities. The group, which played a highly visible role in last year’s election campaign, acquiesced in an early Democratic strategy of seeking approval for nonbinding measures to pressure Bush to change his plans.
In recent weeks, that has changed. Fearing that Democrats ultimately will surrender and give Bush the money he wants, the organization sent Reid and Pelosi a letter saying that if Democrats “appear to capitulate to Bush on Iraq, MoveOn will move to a position of opposition.”