WASHINGTON – Congressional Democrats have signaled they're not ready to back down in their confrontation with President Bush on Iraq, spurring Republicans to accuse them of causing political gridlock.
Bush and Congress have been discussing a possible compromise on a war spending bill needed to finance combat operations through September. The president demands the money without strings attached and so far has found strong Republican support. But Democrats say Bush eventually will have to accept some conditions on the U.S. commitment in Iraq because of the war's unpopularity among voters.
For the first time, Bush dispatched his top aides to Capitol Hill this week to sit down with Democratic leaders to discuss the war.
"It has taken almost four and a half years, but it appears the president finally is willing to consider what most Americans and members of Congress have long known: we must change course in Iraq and move toward a strategy that will make our country more secure," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in a statement released Friday.
Negotiations are expected to continue early next week. Unclear is whether a compromise could be struck.
In a flash of defiance, House Democratic leaders on Thursday weighed a proposal that would guarantee the war money only through July. After that, Congress could block additional money from being spent if the Iraqi government does not meet certain political and security goals.
The proposal, not yet endorsed and outlined for only a few members, would be a direct challenge to the president and could prompt another presidential veto. This week, Bush vetoed a $124.2 billion bill that would have provided money for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan while requiring troops to begin coming home by Oct. 1.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, views a short-term funding bill as a nonstarter, said spokesman Brian Kennedy.
"We don't consider this a serious compromise," Kennedy said Friday. "It will create gridlock in Washington at a time when the troops need support fast, which is the functional equivalent of the 'slow-bleed' approach Democrats started with four months ago. They appear to be moving backward, not forward."
Democrats contend they will provide troops the resources they need and will send Bush a bill by the end of the month. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has reported that the Army has enough bookkeeping flexibility to fund war operations until about July, although the lack of cash would cause problems in other areas.
Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., suggested the short-term funding bill in a closed door leadership meet Thursday. Under Obey's proposal, members would vote separately on whether to fund some of the domestic spending in the Iraq bill that Bush opposed, such as agricultural assistance.
The plan was described by Democratic aides who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the plan. According to a senior Democratic leadership aide, the plan has not been endorsed by Pelosi or in the Senate.
The move likely would appease a large number of House Democrats who are reluctant to vote for a war spending bill unless it moves toward getting troops out of Iraq. Such a plan would signal to caucus members that the speaker was not willing to back down to Bush and, at the same time, support the troops.
While the House could narrowly pass the measure, it is unlikely to find similar backing in the Senate, where some leading Democrats say they want to fund the war through September.
One option for Pelosi would be to pass the bill only to agree to drop it later when it must be negotiated in the Senate.
Numerous other ideas are being floated in the Senate, most of which involve some combination of goals the Iraqi government must reach. The key impasse, however, is whether to require the withdrawal of U.S. troops if the benchmarks are not met.
Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Robert Byrd of West Virginia proposed a measure to repeal the 2002 resolution authorizing force in Iraq. Under the bill, Bush would be required in October to seek Congress' blessing to continue operations in Iraq.
"If the president will not bring himself to accept reality, it is time for Congress to bring reality to him," said Clinton, a presidential contender for 2008.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino immediately shot down Clinton's proposal as "troubling" in light of ongoing negotiations.
"Here we go again," Perino said in a statement. "The Senate is trying another way to put a surrender date on the calendar. Welcome to politics '08-style."