WASHINGTON—President Bush and congressional leaders opened talks over a new Iraq spending bill Wednesday as top Democrats vowed to continue their push for troop withdrawal.
Lawmakers from both parties said they hoped to resolve the stalemate over war funds by May 25, but it won't be easy. Democrats want a spending bill that points toward withdrawal. Republicans insisted on a funding bill with no strings attached.
"It is time for us to try to work together, to come together. But make no mistake: Democrats are committed to ending this war," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said minutes after a White House meeting with Bush and other congressional leaders.
The closed-door meeting was supposed to last about an hour, but it ended after about 30 minutes with no real progress. Congressional leaders arrived late because of a House of Representatives vote that upheld Bush's veto Tuesday of a $124 billion war-spending bill that called for removing combat troops by the end of the year.
The 222-203 vote fell far short of the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto. Only two Republicans broke with the president. Just seven Democrats sided with Bush.
"Yesterday was a day that highlighted differences. Today's a day where we can work together to find common ground," Bush said as he welcomed lawmakers to the White House.
Lawmakers in both parties face political pressures that could hinder efforts to compromise. Anti-war activists want Democrats to stand up to the president and demand troop withdrawal. Republicans are caught between their loyalty to the president and growing dissatisfaction with the war among voters. Some acknowledge that their Republican loyalty could fade in the fall if there's no significant progress in Iraq.
MoveOn.org, an anti-war group, sponsored rallies across the country Wednesday, including a protest outside the White House, to show support for troop withdrawal. "We expect Congress to stand firm," said Nita Chaudhary, a spokeswoman.
Democratic leaders declined to discuss their negotiating strategy, but House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., outlined a possible compromise. It would jettison the withdrawal timetable and replace it with benchmarks for gauging progress in Iraq, with consequences for Iraq's failure to meet the goals. Leading Republicans have said such an approach might be acceptable.
Hoyer didn't offer any details, either for the benchmarks or for the consequences of failure. Many Democrats say they also want any compromise bill to include steps to ease the deployment burden on troops and improve troop readiness.
Anthony Cordesman, an influential Iraq expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he doubts that Congress-imposed benchmarks would make much difference there. In a paper released Wednesday, Cordesman argued that Congress and the Bush administration have failed to come to grips with Iraq's problems and offer a credible plan.
The administration has overstated progress in Iraq and hyped the risks of setting a timeline for withdrawal, Cordesman wrote. He said a rushed U.S. withdrawal would lead to violent power struggles, but not genocide. He said that the administration's argument that Iraq would become a sanctuary for al-Qaida ignores key points: strong and growing resistance to al-Qaida by Iraqi Sunnis, and opposition to al-Qaida from Iraq's other main groups, the Shiites and Kurds.
In addition, withdrawal would pose no major increase in the threat al-Qaida poses to America, Cordesman wrote, noting that al-Qaida already operates from several countries.
Cordesman also gave the Democratic-led Congress low marks. Its benchmarks and timelines are unrealistic, given Iraq's many problems, he said. Iraq has no strong central government or rule of law, so Iraqi factions will need time to work out compromises.
"Trying to force the issue as if these realities did not exist can be disastrous," Cordesman wrote.
Hoyer said he favored sending a compromise war-funding bill to Bush quickly, while postponing battles over the direction of the war until later.
USIRAQ AT A GLANCE
_Congressional Democrats want any spending bill for Iraq to include provisions that would hasten the withdrawal of U.S. troops and ease the burden of deployments.
_President Bush and his Republican allies reject any timetable for withdrawal.
_Both sides might be willing to accept benchmarks for gauging Iraqi progress. It's not clear whether they can agree on what consequences would follow if Iraqis fail to meet the goals.