WASHINGTON—It may look like an exercise in futility for Democrats: Congress will vote again this week to start withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, only to get knocked down by President Bush's promised veto as soon as the legislation reaches his desk.
But it's also a historic confrontation over the Iraq war between the Democratic-led Congress and a determined president. Bush has cast but one veto as president, against expanding stem-cell research. He'll cast his second to sustain his war policy in Iraq.
Democrats don't have the two-thirds majorities needed in the House of Representatives and the Senate to override his veto, though the House is expected to try next week. But Democrats say they have the wind of public opinion behind them, and they'll keep pushing Bush to wind down the war until they prevail.
The House voted 218-208 on Wednesday night to begin troop withdrawal by Oct. 1, and the Senate is expected to do so on Thursday. Both chambers voted separately last month for different withdrawal terms; the new version both chambers are voting on resolves the differences.
Bush has vowed almost daily for weeks to veto any bill that sets a timeline for U.S. withdrawal.
All but a few Republican lawmakers stand behind him. They argue that his troop increase in Iraq deserves time to see whether it works. Political rhetoric has grown increasingly sharp on both sides, making compromise difficult.
Nevertheless, Democrats promise to force similar antiwar votes in the months ahead. They think that antiwar public opinion eventually will force Republican lawmakers to abandon Bush, admit that the current war policy has failed and join them in trying to end the war—or they'll take the issue to the voters in November 2008.
Republicans know that they lost control of Congress last November largely because of the same dynamic. So this is an unfolding drama with many acts ahead, one whose stakes involve not only the fate of the war and possibly stability in the Middle East but also which party will control the U.S. government in the years to come.
Republican leaders said Wednesday that Iraq posed major challenges and withdrawal wasn't an option. Bush's troop increase won't even be complete until July, said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
"So far, so good," he said after a closed-door briefing with Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq.
Boehner said it was "clear to many of us, not necessarily from Petraeus" that al-Qaida is the main enemy in Iraq.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Petraeus "made clear" that sectarian violence was "the most disruptive element" but that al-Qaida was a "significant presence." Hoyer said the Democrats' plan left forces in the region authorized to fight al-Qaida while pulling them out of the middle of Iraq's civil war.
"Nobody's saying get out tomorrow," Hoyer said.
Petraeus later spoke to reporters. He said he'd briefed lawmakers on "the challenges, the progress to date and the setbacks to date." He said sectarian murders in Baghdad were only one-third as high as in January and that Sunni Muslim tribes in Anbar province had joined the fight against al-Qaida. "One city after another is really clearing them out," he said. He said he hoped for more progress on stopping car bombings.
This week the withdrawal debate is attached to a $124 billion measure that mainly funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through September. The bill now calls for a withdrawal of U.S. forces to start no later than Oct. 1, and by July 1 if Iraq's government fails to meet certain benchmarks of political progress.
It sets a goal—but not a requirement—that the withdrawal be complete by next April 1.
House Republicans argued Wednesday that the Democrats' withdrawal terms would tie military commanders' hands and encourage the enemy. Democrats responded that they would set broad war policy while leaving the military enough flexibility to implement it.
The plan calls for an end to American involvement in tamping down violence in Baghdad. Most U.S. combat troops would leave Iraq, while some would remain to continue training Iraqis. Still other troops, possibly from bases in Kuwait and Jordan, would enter Iraq on counterterrorism missions.
Although they aren't talking much about it yet, it's likely that after a veto they'll give Bush a war-spending bill without a withdrawal timeline, then place the timeline in other bills as spring and summer unfold: broad defense bills in May and June, other spending bills and perhaps even a standalone bill on war strategy.
If the president's troop buildup isn't perceived to be working by roughly Labor Day, many analysts think that Republicans in swing districts and close states will begin moving to end the war.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.