WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid effectively declared war Monday on the U.S. commander in chief, calling President Bush the "odd man out" on Iraq and vowing to use Congress to try to change what he said was Bush's "shoot first" diplomacy.
In a scathing speech seemingly aimed at shaming the president into calling for a withdrawal, Reid said the Bush administration is in denial about the war, incompetent in its conduct and unwilling to listen to alternatives.
"What a shame that after five-and-a-half years, so many lost lives and so much treasure depleted, President Bush hasn't budged from the shoot-first, talk-never style that one national magazine described as 'cowboy diplomacy' — that got us into this mess in the first place," Reid told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
"The president has dug in his heels in this fight, but it doesn't have to be that way. ... Democrats are reaching out to Republicans in Congress in hopes of bipartisan cooperation. Only the president is the odd man out, and he is making the task even harder by demanding absolute fidelity from his party," Reid continued.
Reid spoke just hours after Bush rejected the Democratic leader's suggestion that "the new Congress will show him the way" out of Iraq, and pledged yet again to oppose a timetable to begin withdrawing U.S. combat troops.
"I strongly reject the artificial timetable for withdrawal and/or Washington politicians trying to tell those who wear the uniform how to do their job," Bush said from the Oval Office after a National Security Council meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the Multinational Forces in Iraq. Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also joined in the Oval Office meeting.
Petraeus is expected to speak with lawmakers before they complete their conference on reconciling House and Senate variations in the spending bill. Bush said Petraeus won't sugarcoat the situation in Iraq, but he suggested that some in Congress don't want to hear that the troop surge he proposed in January — and which is only three-fifths complete — is showing hopeful signs of progress.
“It’s a tough time there, as the general will tell the Congress,” Bush said. “He’s here, not only to check in with me and other members of my team, but also he’ll be going up to the Hill, going up to a joint session of the Congress to brief the members, both Republican and Democrat, about what’s going right and what’s not going right.”
The president added that lawmakers shouldn't be telling generals in Iraq how to do their jobs.
"No matter how tough it may look, for the Congress to micromanage this process is a mistake," Bush said.
House and Senate Democrats reached a deal in a meeting on Monday afternoon to finalize legislation to begin withdrawing troops on Oct. 1 of this year with a goal, but not a mandate, to withdraw all combat forces within the subsequent six months. The bill would also restrict how the president can deploy troops that lack sufficient training or have not spent at least one year at home before another deployment. Bush has vowed to veto any Iraq spending bill that sets up a withdrawal date.
The House-Senate conference committee is expected to approve this language late Monday.
The two versions being negotiated by House and Senate conferees differ by a couple billion dollars — money added for lawmakers' pet projects — but both include a timetable. Officials also say the measure will set standards for the Iraqi government to meet as it tries to establish itself as a democratic society, and limits certain foreign aid if benchmarks aren't met.
In a more recent development, Democratic leaders have also said they intend to add a minimum wage increase to the war-funding bill. Key lawmakers announced agreement late last week on a package of business tax breaks to accompany the boost in the wage floor, which would total $2.10 cents an hour in three equal installments.
Bush has pledged a veto on the bill because of the timetable and additional spending, and Republicans appear to have enough support to sustain it. If the veto is held, lawmakers will have to go back to the drawing board to find another way to support the troops while also trying to plan their exit from Iraq.
Acknowledging that the veto will be sustained, Reid, who launched an assault not only on the president but on Vice President Dick Cheney, whom he called Bush's "chief attack dog," said the proposed timetable is "fair and reasonable."
"We have put our plan on the table. If the president disagrees, let him come to us with an alternative. If he believes more time is needed, let him tell us why. If he has new benchmarks to finally hold Iraqis accountable, let him propose them. He says repeatedly that we cannot leave until we have achieved victory. Let him define victory.
"Instead of sending us back to square one with a veto, some tough talk and nothing more, let him come to the table in the spirit of bipartisanship that Americans demand and deserve," Reid said.
The Senate leader also criticized Bush for not listening to advice from the opposition party. He said lawmakers are working in a bipartisan fashion to extricate the U.S. from Iraq, but Bush's intransigence makes that more difficult.
"As long as the president remains obstinate and his Republican allies stick with him, we will continue to face an uphill climb. But the American people deserve to know that we hear them and we're standing up for them. The president has had a long time to dig the ditch we're in, but we're working very hard every day to dig out of that ditch," he said.
But in calling on Bush to accept the timetable, Reid also recognized the president's role as head of the U.S. military.
"Many who voted for change in November anticipated dramatic and immediate results in January. But like it or not, George W. Bush is still the commander in chief — and this is his war," Reid said, adding that he was willing to continue discussions.
"Yes, he is our president, but we are the people's representatives. We will meet with him any time he calls upon us to discuss war policy."
The back-and-forth between Bush and Reid is a continuation of a debate last week in which Reid sparked a furor by saying on three different occasions that the war in Iraq is lost. Accused by Republicans of undercutting the troops, Democrats defended Reid by saying he meant the war would be lost if it continues down the president's path.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the mission would be successful if it were changed from policing a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis to focusing on counterterrorism.
Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter shot back that Reid's statements are destructive.
"Certainly, the war is not being won. But there are still some efforts being made to turn it around. And whether they're successful or not, we won't know. But for the men and women who are over in Iraq, to have somebody of Sen. Reid's stature say that the war is lost, I think is just very, very demoralizing and not necessary," Specter told "FOX News Sunday."
In his remarks Monday, Reid added that the military was successful in its primary mission, but since the end of major combat in May 2003, U.S. troops have been bogged down by administration ineptitude. He points to a spike in violence last week to demonstrate the surge of troops into Baghdad isn't working.
"The military mission has long since been accomplished. The failure has been political. It has been policy. It has been presidential," he said.
FOX News' Major Garrett, Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.