Democratic congressional leaders on Friday offered the first concessions in a fight with President Bush over a spending bill for Iraq, but the White House turned them down.
In a closed-door meeting with Bush's top aides on Capitol Hill, Democrats said they'd strip billions of dollars in domestic spending out of a war spending bill that Bush opposed if the president would accept a timetable to pull combat troops out of Iraq. As part of the deal, Democrats said they would allow the president to waive compliance with a deadline for troop withdrawals.
But no deal was struck.
"To say I was disappointed in the meeting is an understatement," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "I really did expect that the president would accept some accountability for what we're trying to accomplish here."
Timetable stumbling block
White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten, who rejected the deal, said any timetable on the war would undermine the nation's efforts in Iraq.
"We consider that to be not a significant distinction," he said. "Whether waivable or not, timelines send the wrong signal."
At stake is the more than $90 billion the president says is needed to cover the costs of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan through September. The Democratic-controlled Congress on May 1 sent Bush a bill that would have funded the war but also would have demanded that troops start coming home Oct. 1.
Bush swiftly rejected that bill. Unable to override his veto, Democrats have been trying to find a way to pass a new bill by Memorial Day that funds the troops but still challenges Bush's Iraq policy.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said negotiations with the White House were not dead, but she and Reid made it clear they would proceed this weekend on their own in drafting a new bill that could be widely supported in Congress. The leaders said the plan remained to send Bush a bill by the Memorial Day recess.
"It is clear that the difference between the president and Democrats is accountability," said Pelosi, D-Cal. But ultimately, she later added, "Our troops will be funded."
Also attending the meeting on Capitol Hill was Stephen Hadley, the president's national security adviser, and Rob Portman, the White House budget director, as well as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Reps. Jerry Lewis and David Obey. Lewis, R-Calif., is the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee and Obey, D-Wis., is chairman.
Benchmarks of a sort
The Democrats declined to say what their next bill will look like in light of Friday's meeting. But they insisted, as they have done for weeks, that nothing - including a timetable on the war - was off the table.
House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio accused Democrats of seeking "an arbitrary surrender date" and said the GOP has enough votes "to sustain the president's veto on any bill" along those lines.
Bolten echoed that, saying, "the Democrats seem to be dug in on precisely the same approach" that drew the president's earlier veto.
The White House chief of staff said Republicans had offered a proposal that was essentially what received 52 votes in the Senate this week. It would establish a series of standards for the Iraqi government to meet, and condition the flow of reconstruction funds on progress toward achieving the goals.
Bolten did not say so, but the legislation, advanced by Virginia Sen. John Warner and other Republicans, would have allowed Bush to override the proposal by ordering the funds to be spent regardless of how the Baghdad government performed.