WASHINGTON – Bowing to President George W. Bush, the Democratic-controlled Congress grudgingly approved fresh billions for the Iraq war minus the troop withdrawal timeline that drew his earlier veto.
"The Iraqi government needs to show real progress in return for America's continued support and sacrifice," the commander in chief said Thursday, before the votes in Congress, and he warned that August could prove to be a bloody month for U.S. troops in Baghdad's murderous neighborhoods.
The Senate vote to send the legislation to the president was 80-14. Less than two hours earlier, the House of Representatives had cleared the measure, 280-142, with Republicans supplying the bulk of the support.
Five months in power in Congress, Democrats in both houses coupled their concession to the president with pledges to challenge his policies anew. "This debate will go on," vowed Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada was more emphatic: "Senate Democrats will not stop our efforts to change the course of this war until either enough Republicans join with us to reject President Bush's failed policy or we get a new president," he said.
"I hate this agreement," said Rep. David Obey, another Democrat, chairman of the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, who played a major role in talks with the White House that yielded the compromise measure.
In a highly unusual maneuver, House Democratic leaders came up with a procedure that allowed their rank and file to oppose money for the war, then step aside so Republicans could provide the bulk of votes needed to send it to the Senate for final approval.
Presidential politics spiced the proceedings in the Senate.
That left Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama publicly uncommitted in the hours leading to the vote, two leading White House rivals tugged in one direction by the needs of 165,000 U.S. troops and in another by party activists demanding rejection of the legislation.
After a bruising veto battle, Democratic leaders said they hoped to clear the bill for Bush's signature by the coming holiday weekend in the United States. The president rejected an earlier measure, objecting to a troop withdrawal timetable, and the House failed to override his objection.
The legislation includes nearly $95 billion to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through Sept. 30. Besides jettisoning their plan for a troop withdrawal timeline, Democrats abandoned attempts to insert provisions to require the Pentagon to adhere to troop training, readiness and rest requirements unless Bush waived them.
The bill establishes a series of goals for the Iraqi government to meet as it tries to build a democratic country able to defend its own borders. Continued U.S. reconstruction aid would be conditioned on progress toward the so-called benchmarks, although Bush retains the authority to order that the funds to be spent regardless of how the Baghdad government performs.
In exchange for providing the war money on Bush's terms, Democrats won White House approval for about $17 billion in spending above what the administration originally sought. Roughly $8 billion of that was for domestic programs ranging from hurricane relief to farm aid to low-income children's health coverage.
Democrats also won a top priority: the first minimum wage increase in more than a decade. The current federal wage floor of $5.15 an hour will go to $7.25 in three separate installments of 70 cents.
Reflecting unhappiness among conservatives in his own party, Bush said he would have preferred less domestic spending than the bill contained. "But, still, by voting for this bill members of both parties can show our troops and the Iraqis and the enemy that our country will support our servicemen and women in harm's way," he said at a news conference.
One of the most vocal war critics in Congress readily agreed. "This is not a game. They run out of money next week," said Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, whose speech opposing Bush's Iraq policy more than a year ago was a turning point in the national debate.
Bush ordered the deployment of an additional five brigades to Iraq in January to try and quell sectarian violence, and he said the midyear summer months would be critical to the fate of the new strategy.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, has pledged to report to the administration and Congress in September on the progress made in the war, and Bush readily conceded that Al Qaeda terrorists and illegal militias will make sure there is heavy fighting in the interim to try and sap the will of the United States.
"And so, yes, it could be a bloody -- it could be a very difficult August, " he said.
He said he wants to see American troops "in a different configuration at some point in time in Iraq." He said that meant moving from mostly combat to training, border security and anti-terror operations by the special forces.
"However," Bush said, "it's going to require taking control" of Baghdad.
But with a new poll showing that 80 percent of self-described independents oppose the war, it was unclear how long Bush could fend off his Democratic critics in Congress, or even can count on Republicans to hold firm.
"It seems to me it's time for them (Iraqi troops) to show what is their ability and professionalism to step up," said Republican Sen. John Warner. He said if conditions do not improve by mid-July, the president should reconsider his strategy.
For now, though, Republicans focused their rhetoric on the threat to the United States if terrorists should triumph.
"We cannot and will not abandon the Iraqis to be butchered by these terrorists in their midst," said Republican Rep. David Dreier. "And we cannot and will not abandon our mission just as real progress is starting to be made."