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Look for Iraq funding through September

NBC  News’ Washington bureau chief and host of "Meet the Press" discusses the current battle over funding for the Iraq war and the blunt meeting between the president and GOP congressmen.
/ Source: NBC News

MSNBC:  Tim, the White House says there’s no connection, but you’ve got disgruntled, moderate, Republicans who have gone into the White House and really told the president what they’re thinking, in, what you report, was a very candid meeting Tuesday.  Now the president says, “Well, okay.  I’ll take benchmarks.” What’s up?

Russert:  I think Tuesday’s meeting was a very important one.  It was the president, secretary of state, secretary of defense, the White House chief of staff, Karl Rove the political adviser, Tony Snow the press secretary and eleven Republican congressmen.  One who was in the meeting told me that he’s met with three American presidents and he’s never been more candid with a president.

Tom Davis, the congressman from Northern Virginia, told the president in some parts of his district he has a 5% approval rating and that something had to be done about the war – that they were going to risk the future of the Republican Party, in effect.

Adding to this is Mitch McConnell, who’s the leader of the Republicans in the Senate.  Thursday he said that if, in effect, “The surge does not work in September and the president doesn’t do something about the war, the Congress will, because we Republicans do not want to have another election where Iraq is the major issue.”

So I see a convergence of both the House and Senate Republicans, who are saying to the president, “Okay, this is a critical time.  There better be some marked progress or we may have to take a different course.”

That’s why you saw the president, Thursday, agreeing to the so-called “benchmarks,” which are saying to the Iraqi government, “Start performing or the end may be near.”  That’s a change in position for the Bush administration to accept them.

MSNBC:  What’s the difference between what the Senate intends and the Congress intends?

Russert:  The House will continue to insist on a date certain for withdrawal.  That’s not going to happen.  The Democrats wanted to be on the record in favor of it and they wanted to put the Republicans on the record against it.  In the end, both houses of Congress will provide money for the troops through September 30th, with benchmarks – saying to the Malaki government in Iraq, “You’ve got to start performing.”

And I think what really triggered a lot of this was the announcement by the Iraqi parliament that they were going to take a two month vacation.

One of the Republican members in the Tuesday meeting with the president said, “Mr. President, our sons and daughters are spilling blood and they’re taking vacation… it doesn’t make any sense.”

MSNBC:  Then footrace is on between how many votes he’s going to lose in his veto-proof margin and September, when Petraeus reports back to Congress?

Russert:  You got it.  Gen. Petraeus will then make his report to Congress and the American people and Congress will have to decide whether they want to continue funding the war.  It’s that simple.

MSNBC:  So the writing is a lot clearer this week, as far as the president?

Russert:  Yeah, and in the end it’s always the members of the president’s party that make these kinds of decisions.  And there’s real uncertainty, real anxiety amongst Republicans about the war.

MSNBC:  We’re talking about, really a time period of 60 to 90 days here to see, what many people say would have to be a substantial turnaround.  But military people are saying that’s not going to happen.

Russert:  It’s pretty tough.  Gen. Petraeus now is going to be under enormous pressure when this report comes out in September to be honest and candid as to what he’s finding.

That was another thing that was said in Tuesday’s meeting with the president – again, by Republican congressmen.  They said, “Mr. President, we can’t hear about the war from anyone in this room because the administration doesn’t have any credibility in talking to the American people.  We have to hear it from Gen. Petraeus.  He has to be the honest broker.”

It’s the first time in my memory there’s been such pressure on a military officer in this democracy to basically determine the fate, in the future, of a military war.

It’s tough, it’s real and it’s playing such a huge role in politics.  Mitt Romney did an interview with 60 Minutes for this Sunday where he’s criticizing the management of the war by the Bush administration.  Each of the candidates is going to stake out a position.

And this Sunday on Meet the Press we have an exclusive interview in our “Meet the Candidate” series, 2008 - Sen. John McCain, who has tied his candidacy to the war in Iraq will be front and center.

I can’t wait to find out Sen. McCain’s thinking on the war, in light of what the Republicans have been saying these past couple for days.

It’s going to be interesting, because, as we well know, John McCain lost the primary race in 2000 to George Bush and the question is, in 2008, is his campaign in jeopardy because he’s too close to George Bush.  That’s the ultimate irony of all.

I plan to talk to him about Iraq at some length, because I’m trying to determine whether this is a seismic shift in the Republican Party.

It’s a big issue, Sunday on Meet the Press.