White House

Bush, congressional leaders fail to agree on war plan

WASHINGTON—President Bush and congressional Democrats aired their differences over Iraq in an hour-long meeting at the White House Wednesday but failed to agree on a war plan.

Meeting participants said Bush reiterated his opposition to any timetable for withdrawal, while Democrats declared their determination to end the war. The disagreement has stalled a war-funding bill that both sides agree is needed to maintain supplies for the troops.

"We can't pass legislation over his veto, and he can't pass legislation that we don't agree with," Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters after the closed-door White House meeting.

The lack of progress toward a compromise sets the stage for a high-stakes showdown between the White House and the Democratic-controlled Congress over an increasingly unpopular war.

Democrats are hoping that public pressure will erode Bush's support among congressional Republicans and persuade him to change course. Republicans are counting on Democrats to back down when it becomes clear that the standoff is endangering funding for troops in Iraq.

The standoff could drag on for weeks as both sides play out their self-assigned roles. Despite Bush's veto threat, Democrats intend to send him a spending bill later this month that includes a timetable for withdrawal. Once Bush vetoes it, the pressure to resolve the impasse is sure to escalate.

"We cannot give the president a blank check, but we're willing to work with him to come to an agreement," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "We look forward to continuing the conversation with the president."

Both sides went into the White House meeting determined to hold their ground after weeks of sniping from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Republicans said Bush was firm in rejecting what they called "a surrender date."

"The president was clear with the Democrats what he would and wouldn't do," said House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio. "The first big issue is whether in fact we're going to agree to a surrender date, and that's not going to happen."

Still, both sides called the meeting a positive sign. Lawmakers described the session as polite and candid.

"It was a good exchange," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "I think he needs to hear more conversations from people like us who don't always tell him what he wants to hear."

Congressional Democrats glossed over their internal differences over a withdrawal plan, which will have to be resolved before they can send any bill to the White House. The Senate version of the spending bill would set a nonbinding goal of removing most American combat forces by March 31, 2008. The tougher House version sets a binding withdrawal date of Aug. 31, 2008. Thousands of American troops would remain, however, to train Iraqis, fight terrorists and protect Americans, including military units and diplomats.

"We will give the president what we come up with," Reid said. "We're close to that conclusion now."