WASHINGTON – Top Senate Democrats on Sunday appeared to reject their leader's suggestion that lawmakers set a date for cutting funds off for U.S. troops in Iraq, even as they prepare for a veto from President Bush on a supplemental spending bill that sets a timetable for withdrawal.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he would not back a plan — to be introduced this week by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and already endorsed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — to cut off money for the Iraq war effort by March 31, 2008. That's the same date Democrats included in the emergency supplemental spending bill as a target withdrawal for all combat forces.
"We're not going to vote to cut funding, period," Levin said. "But what we should do, and we're going to do, is continue to press this president to put some pressure on the Iraqi leaders to reach a political settlement."
"Nothing — nothing — will stand in our way of supporting the troops in every way," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., acknowledging that President Bush is likely to veto the $122 billion legislation currently on the table.
If that veto happens, Schumer told FOX News, "We will try to come up with a way, by talking with the White House, trying to compromise with the White House, that both supports the troops and yet changes the strategy in Iraq, which we feel is misguided."
The House and Senate are still trying to work out discrepancies in their versions of the legislation to be sent up for a presidential veto. The Senate bill would require a U.S. troop exit to begin within 120 days, with a completion goal of March 31, 2008. The House bill would order all combat troops out by Sept. 1, 2008.
Regardless of either scenario, Bush has said he will reject it. Both chambers have enough votes to sustain a veto, which means lawmakers will have to go back to the drawing board. Meanwhile, military officials claim they need additional funding before late April to avoid adding to strain on troops in the field and preparing for deployment.
The new bill language by Feingold, one of the most ardent anti-war Democrats in Congress, says no funds "appropriated or otherwise made available under any provision of law may be obligated or expended to continue the deployment in Iraq of members of the United States Armed Forces after March 31, 2008."
But Schumer said the Reid-Feingold bill doesn't call for a complete defunding of the troops.
"It calls for continued funding even after March of 2008, which is a year from now, for three missions: Counterterrorism, which is what the original mission was to always be, protecting our forces and retraining Iraqis," Schumer said.
"We are not going to leave the troops high and dry, plain and simple. Senator Reid has said that. I've said that. Every leader of the Democratic Party has said that," Schumer said.
But finding Democratic support for Feingold's bill may not be easy. The Democratic supplemental legislation passed 51-47 on almost a straight party line. But already Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., who supported the timetable, has said he won't back cutting off funding for U.S. forces.
"I do not believe that we can or should cut funding for our troops in Iraq or Afghanistan while we anticipate that our troops will be in harm's way," Salazar wrote in a letter sent to Bush and key Senate Democrats. The letter also urges implementation of recommendations made by the Iraq Study Group. They include setting a date for withdrawal.
Levin said that while Senate Democrats will largely continue to support funding the troops, he will insist that President Bush live up to his goal of insisting the Iraqi government reach benchmarks for reconciliation.
"We're very strong in supporting the troops, but we're also strong on putting pressure on the Iraqi leaders to live up to their own commitments. Without that political settlement on their part, there is no military solution," Levin said. "We can keep the benchmarks part of the bill without saying that the troops must begin to come back within four months.
"And what we will leave will be benchmarks, for instance, which would require the president to certify to the American people if the Iraqis are meeting the benchmarks for political settlement, which they, the Iraqi leaders, have set for themselves," he said.
For their part, Republicans who voted against the supplemental, insist that Congress let the president be the commander in chief without impediment.
"We cannot leave the troops unfunded in the field. That just can't be done. And Congress is not in a position to micromanage the war," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., told a cable news channel. "But we do not have any good alternative. Right now, you can't see the end of the tunnel, let alone a light at the end of the tunnel."
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said lawmakers who support a withdrawal date are basing it on a false notion that the Iraqis are not listening to the United States.
"I was over there about a month ago. We saw the reaction of the Iraqis. They are cooperating with us. So that's old news that they're not cooperating. That's one of the reasons this new surge strategy is working," he said on ABC's "This Week."
Kyl said withholding money from troops with the aim of sending a message to Iraqis that they must do better would be self-defeating.
"You're also sending a message to our troops and to our enemies, who know that all they have to do is wait the conflict out. This is not the way to try to micromanage a war from the U.S. Senate," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.