WASHINGTON—Democrats conceded Tuesday that their demands to begin withdrawing from Iraq can't be included in a war-spending bill because President Bush would veto it, and they prepared to give him the money largely on his terms.
"The president has made it very clear he is not going to sign a timeline. We can't sign timelines over his veto. But the fact of the matter is I think we have moved this debate very substantially forward in terms of accountability and demanding a new direction in Iraq," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
Democrats are working under a self-imposed deadline to finish a war-spending bill that Bush can sign this week—before the Memorial Day recess—in order to avoid holding up funds needed in combat zones and being bashed by Republicans over the holiday recess for not supporting the troops.
Bush vetoed a Democratic war-spending bill on May 1 that would have set Oct. 1 as the deadline for beginning withdrawal.
Early Tuesday evening Democrats were nearing an agreement with the White House that would require the Iraqi government to meet a set of benchmarks for economic and political steps toward a representative government and an end to factional fighting. If Iraq failed to meet the deadlines, Bush could withhold non-military aid as a consequence, but he could also waive any penalties.
The new compromise was the product of talks among congressional Democrats, Republicans and top White House aides.
Anti-war Democrats denounced the new plan.
The new proposal "does nothing to end this disastrous war," said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. "I cannot support a bill that contains nothing more than toothless benchmarks and that allows the president to continue what may be the greatest foreign policy blunder in our nation's history."
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the new plan was just what Republicans wanted—about $96 billion in funding for the troops through the end of the 2007 fiscal year on Sept. 30, without any withdrawal timeline. McConnell indicated that Republicans would drop their objections to the other $20 billion or so in non-war spending in the bill.
McConnell said that Democrats had indicated that the new war-spending bill essentially would track a plan by Sen. John Warner of Virginia, a leading Republican on military affairs, that would hold Iraq to benchmarks originally suggested late last year by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. They include passing an oil bill that would divide revenues among all Iraqi ethnic groups and revising laws to provide for greater political participation by minority Sunni Muslim Iraqis.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that Warner's proposal was "extremely weak," but it wasn't "a blank check."
"It's still a lot more than the president ever expected, and he absolutely would have to agree to it," Reid said. The timeline had to be dropped, he said. "We don't have a veto-proof Congress."
Reid also said that Democrats will keep trying "to change direction in the war in Iraq" with other legislation in the weeks and months ahead.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., a longtime opponent of Bush's policies in Iraq, said he was pleased with the new bill because it provided funding for the troops plus money for addressing serious shortfalls at Walter Reed Army Hospital, hurricane recovery and homeland security. He called it "a step forward in shifting the responsibility for Iraq's future off the shoulders of our military and onto the shoulders of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people."
Susan Shaer, co-chair of the group Win Without War, issued a scalding statement: "The voters went to the polls in 2006 to elect candidates who would end the war. Continuing to fund the war without setting timelines ... is another step toward endless war."
The new plan also was expected to include other military funding, including money for new explosive-resistant vehicles and improved health care for wounded servicemen and women and veterans, as well as an increase in the minimum wage.