WASHINGTON – Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday he won't block Senate passage of an Iraq war spending bill even if the GOP fails to kill its troop withdrawal deadline because he knows President Bush will veto it.
Facing a cliffhanging vote this week, McConnell promised to fight the provision, which calls for combat troops to be brought home within a year. Even if he fails, McConnell said he won't stand in the way of the bill's final passage because the sooner it is sent to the president, the sooner Bush can veto it.
Unable to override the veto, Democrats will then be forced to redraft the bill without a "surrender deadline," McConnell predicted.
"Our goal is to pass it quickly," McConnell said of the war spending bill. "Our troops need the money."
The Senate's $122 billion bill would finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but require that Bush begin pulling out some troops right away with the goal of ending combat missions by March 31, 2008.
The House passed a similar measure last week, but with a tougher deadline. Whereas the Senate identifies March 2008 as a goal — giving the president leeway to ignore the deadline — the House voted 218-212 to require all combat troops out as of Aug. 31, 2008.
"The United States Senate will ensure they have everything they need to continue this fight as we have done," said Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. But "we must also ensure that our soldiers have a strategy for success."
The Senate will vote as early as Tuesday on a Republican amendment to strip the withdrawal language from the bill.
"Congress should not be tying the hands of our commanders or limiting their flexibility to respond to threats on the battlefield," said Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee.
Sen. John McCain, a presidential contender for 2008, told reporters in Dallas Monday that the debate is not about whether to bring troops home.
"It's a date certain for surrender, a date certain for us to tell our enemies we're leaving and they will have their way."
In a conference call with reporters, McConnell said the nonbinding nature of the Senate deadline would be a distinction lost on U.S. foes and the measure would serve as a "memo to our enemies to let them know when they can operate again."
Likewise, Bush has said he will veto any measure that attempts to micromanage the war.
"These Democrats believe that the longer they can delay funding for our troops, the more likely they are to force me to accept restrictions on our commanders, an artificial timetable for withdrawal and their pet spending projects. This is not going to happen," Bush said last week.
Whether Republicans can prevent such a showdown between Bush and Congress is unclear. Democratic leaders have labored to bolster support for their proposal and their success could hinge on a single vote.
Earlier this month, the Senate rejected a similar timetable on the war with Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas siding with Republicans against the proposal in a 50-48 vote.
Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon was the lone Republican voting in favor of the resolution.
Since the March 15 vote, Reid and others have made changes in hopes of persuading Nelson and Pryor to support the withdrawal proposal. The changes include a series of suggested goals for the Iraqi government to meet to provide for its own security, enhance democracy and distribute its oil wealth fairly.
Nelson said last week he agreed to support the measure because the benchmarks "can be used by Congress to make future decisions about U.S. military presence in Iraq."
Pryor remains reluctant.
"I think if the public timetable remains, Senator Pryor would likely oppose it," said spokesman Michael Teague.
While most Republicans are expected to reject setting a timetable in Iraq, the vote is likely to be a difficult one for those facing re-election next year.
A solid majority of Americans want their representatives in Congress to support legislation calling for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by August 2008. Nearly six in 10 want their members of Congress to support such a bill, and one-third want them to oppose it, according to a poll released Monday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.