WASHINGTON – Democrats are considering their next step after President Bush's inevitable veto of their war spending proposal, including a possible short-term funding bill that would force Congress to revisit the issue this summer.
Another alternative is providing the Pentagon the money it needs for the war but insisting that the Iraqi government live up to certain political promises. Or, the congressional Democrats could send Bush what he wants for now and set their sights on 2008 spending legislation.
The options are being weighed as Bush and Congress head toward a showdown this week on his Iraq policy. House and Senate appropriations meet Monday to negotiate a final bill that, if approved by both chambers, could reach the president's desk as early as the end of the week.
Army Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the Iraq war, is expected to brief lawmakers behind closed doors as they cast their final vote.
The legislation is expected to fund the Iraq war but call for combat troops to leave, probably by March 31, 2008. Bush has promised to reject it and Republicans say they will back him, leaving Democrats short of the two-thirds majority support needed to override the veto.
Setting an end date to the war before it's won "would be a death blow to forces of moderation throughout the Middle East," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Democratic leaders have been reluctant to discuss their next step, focusing instead on their ability to send Bush legislation rebuking his Iraq policy. But other lawmakers say there is no denying that Democrats do not have the two-thirds majority needed to override Bush's veto. And soon enough, everyone will be asking what happens next.
Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who chairs the House panel that oversees military funding, said he wants a bill that would fund the war for just two or three months. Before that second bill would expire in summer, Democrats would try again to pass legislation calling for an end to combat.
Bush has said the military needs more than $90 billion through September, most of which would finance combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Murtha's proposal would give Democrats time to try to rally support among Republicans growing increasingly frustrated with the war who have so far been reluctant to tie the hands of their GOP president.
The tact also would attract party liberals in the House who don't want to fund the war at all.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey said she likes the idea of a limited funding bill because it keeps open the possibility that Congress will cut off money for the war this summer.
"Look at it every single day," Woolsey, D-Calif., said of the violence in Iraq. "I hope it's not worse, but it will be. . . . In two months, it might be that there should be no more money" for the war.
But that impression is precisely why such a plan would be difficult to pass in the House and likely sink in the Senate, where more conservative Democrats say they prefer other means to twist the president's arm.
Cutting off funding for the war is the "wrong message to our troops" and would fail, said Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Then "the defeat of an effort to cut funding would be used by the president as evidence of support for his policy," he added.
Accordingly, Levin said he would support legislation that would fund the war through September but insist the Iraqi government live up to its political promises.
Last fall, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pledged to make laws establishing provincial elections, regulate distribution of the country's oil wealth and reverse measures that have excluded many Sunnis from jobs and government positions because of Baath party membership.
Levin, D-Mich., said that should Bush veto the war spending bill, Democrats could pass legislation that would drop the timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal but require the Iraqis meet certain benchmarks. He declined to provide further specifics.
In order to attract GOP support and force Bush to sign the bill, Democrats would have to craft language that gives the president some flexibility. At the same time, Democratic leaders will have to persuade their own party members that the bill still challenges Bush's Iraq policy.
"The greater clarity of the consequences for the failure to meet the benchmarks, the greater pressure on Iraqi leaders," Levin said.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino dismissed Murtha's suggestion of a short-term funding bill and said Democrats should focus instead on providing troops what they need.
"Since there's only five months left in this supplemental, having this same debate in another month, given their track record on producing legislation, doesn't seem prudent," Perino said.
Rep. James Moran, a member of defense appropriations panel, said Democrats might not have much of a choice in responding to Bush's veto other than to consider the short-term funding bill.
"We don't want to throw in the towel," said Moran, D-Va. "The problem is (Bush) is willing to play chicken with funding the troops and we aren't. We just aren't going to take a chance (the Pentagon) will run out of funding for the troops."