WASHINGTON—Congressional Democratic leaders on Friday rejected a White House deal on Iraq war spending that centered on giving Iraq's government benchmarks of performance to meet.
Democrats insisted instead on keeping a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq as they negotiated on a war-funding bill with White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten. However, Democrats also offered their first compromise: They'd delete more than $20 billion for non-war-related spending from the bill, and agree that the president could waive a withdrawal deadline.
On a day in which each side batted down the other's proposal, Bolten said that including a waiver option did not make setting a withdrawal date acceptable to the White House. "A timeline for withdrawal, whether waivable or not, would be a very counterproductive move while Gen. (David) Petraeus (the commander in Iraq) is pursuing a plan with troops in the field at this moment that has some prospect for success," he said.
Democrats aim to get a bill to Bush next week, before Congress recesses for Memorial Day, because they don't want to hold up money needed by troops at war. They've insisted they won't give the president the nearly $100 billion he's requested for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with no strings attached, but it's not clear whether they'll be able to add much beyond demands for more reports and instructions to the Iraqi government to move toward national reconciliation.
Democratic leaders would not say specifically what terms they would accept in the final bill, but it appeared that they now accept that they must back down on a timeline for withdrawal.
"It was disappointing. We'll now proceed to write a bill to fund the troops," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said after the negotiations broke down. "When we leave here for Memorial Day weekend to pay tribute to those who have fallen on behalf of our country, our troops will be funded."
Bolten said the administration offered to set benchmarks for the Iraqi government, adding that Bush would report on whether they're met and that U.S. aid could be withheld if the Iraqis failed. He wasn't more specific as to what kind of aid and whether withholding it would be left to Bush's sole discretion.
The benchmarks Bolten offered include political changes in Iraq allowing fair representation of minority Sunni Muslims, provincial elections and a law on the distribution of oil revenues.
The administration's plan is what Sen. John Warner, R-Va., a leading Republican on military affairs, proposed earlier in the week. It failed to win Senate approval, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called it "very tepid."
Warner's plan also called on the president to report on Iraq in mid-July. Bolten said Bush would report on "what's the best path forward to ensure we get the progress we need."
"It seems to me that provides the accountability that members here in the Congress are looking for, for the way that the president is conducting the war, and does not have the defects of setting an arbitrary timeline for the withdrawal of our troops," he said.
Reid said that Americans want a timeline for withdrawal and tighter standards for troops' rest, equipment and lengths of tours of duty. "And the answer we got time after time in the meeting we had this morning is the president would take no responsibility," he said.
Bush on May 1 vetoed a war-spending bill that would have set Oct. 1 as a date for beginning a withdrawal of all forces except those fighting terrorists, protecting the U.S. embassy staff and other Americans, and training Iraqis.
Reid in a statement said that Democrats' efforts to end U.S. involvement in the sectarian fighting in Iraq would not end with the spending bill.
"We will continue our work in the days and weeks ahead until the president and congressional Republicans finally heed the advice of military experts and the will of the American people and join us in bringing the war to a responsible end," Reid said.
Several Republican lawmakers have said that if progress is not visible in Iraq by September, they may begin then to press for U.S. withdrawal.