WASHINGTON—President Bush will meet with the Democratic leaders of Congress at the White House on Wednesday to discuss what to do about Iraq after Bush vetoed the Democrats' war-funding bill on Tuesday because it contained a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops.
A bipartisan consensus appeared to be growing on Capitol Hill that any new bill to support U.S. troops in Iraq must contain benchmarks for political progress by the Iraqi government—with consequences if the Iraqis fail to meet them. But it remained unclear what benchmarks or consequences Republican lawmakers or the White House would accept, or whether congressional Republicans would continue to stand with Bush.
As he repeatedly had threatened, Bush vetoed the $124 billion war-spending bill on Tuesday because of its timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.
"It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing," Bush said at the White House. That "would be setting a date for failure, and that would be irresponsible."
Bush's veto—the second of his presidency—sets the stage for compromise. Aware that they lack a two-thirds majority to override the veto, congressional Democrats are searching for terms that could pick up enough Republican support to prevail while appealing to anti-war Democrats.
After Bush spoke, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., faced the TV cameras and vowed to work with Bush but not yield to him.
"The president wants a blank check. The Congress is not going to give it to him," Pelosi said.
While Bush has insisted that he'll accept no withdrawal timeline, White House aides have signaled that some performance benchmarks for Iraq could be negotiable.
As the legislation headed Tuesday to its inevitable veto, several Republicans expressed frustration that Bush and the Democratic leadership had insisted on a showdown rather than serious closed-door talks.
"There are a number of Republicans who do think that some kind of benchmarks, properly crafted, would actually be helpful," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "So I think that is an area that we can talk about, beginning tomorrow."
Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, chairman of the House Republican Conference, also saw benchmarks as an avenue for compromise.
Putnam said he and other House GOP lawmakers are open to cutting off non-military aid if the Iraqi government fails to meet certain benchmarks within set time frames, but not to tying troop funding to any benchmarks.
"We're willing to consider on the economic, reconstruction, civil side of the ledger," he said. "I think it's premature to declare unilaterally that should be off the table."
While Republicans expressed a willingness to negotiate, Democratic leaders were less open Tuesday afternoon.
"I don't want to get into a negotiation with myself," said Reid, when asked about his talks with McConnell about possible compromise.
The vetoed measure set benchmarks for the Iraqi government to develop its military forces and take actions to achieve national reconciliation. If Bush didn't certify that the benchmarks were being met, the bill would've required that U.S. troops start leaving Iraq by July 1, with a goal of ending the withdrawal by Dec. 31, 2007. If the benchmarks were met, the withdrawal would begin Oct. 1 and end by the same goal.
Bush's veto capped a day heavy in symbolism for congressional opponents of the war and for a president who's staked his legacy on Iraq. Both sides are trying to rally public opinion behind their stands.
Pelosi and Reid sent the bill to the White House after a Capitol Hill signing ceremony. It coincided with the fourth anniversary of Bush's landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier to proclaim that major combat was over in Iraq. He gave the address under a now-infamous banner that read "Mission Accomplished."
"After more than four years of a failed policy, it's time to remove our troops from an open-ended civil war and for Iraq to take responsibility for its own future," Reid said.
The White House countered with stagecraft of its own.
Bush delivered an afternoon speech at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., where he said that removing U.S. forces from Iraq would turn the country into a "cauldron of chaos." He timed his veto message for the prime-time news hour.
Some GOP lawmakers are as frustrated as Democrats are by the standoff and say it's time for Bush to work with Congress to come up with a workable war-funding bill.
"I know the White House wants to have open-ended latitude in how to conduct the war, and I don't think that's simply an option at this point," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. "My advice is to work on a bipartisan basis. I think it's essential for the president. . . . A lot has happened in Iraq and the time has come for a change."