WASHINGTON – A sharply divided House brushed aside a veto threat Wednesday and passed legislation that would order President Bush to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq by Oct. 1.
The 218-208 vote came as the top U.S. commander in Iraq told lawmakers the country remained gripped by violence but was showing some signs of improvement.
Passage puts the bill on track to clear Congress by week's end and arrive on the president's desk in coming days as the first binding congressional challenge to Bush's handling of the conflict now in its fifth year.
"Our troops are mired in a civil war with no clear enemy and no clear strategy for success," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.
Republicans promised to stand squarely behind the president in rejecting what they called a "surrender date" handed to the enemy.
"Al Qaeda will view this as the day the House of Representatives threw in the towel," said Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee.
The $124.2 billion bill would fund the war, among other things, but demand troop withdrawals begin on Oct. 1 or sooner if the Iraqi government does not meet certain benchmarks. The bill sets a nonbinding goal of completing the troop pull out by April 1, 2008, allowing for forces conducting certain noncombat missions, such as attacking terrorist networks or training Iraqi forces, to remain.
Two Republicans — Reps. Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland and Walter Jones of North Carolina — joined 216 Democrats in passing the bill. Voting no were 195 Republicans and 13 Democrats.
House and Senate appropriators agreed to the legislation earlier this week. The Senate was expected to clear the measure Thursday, sending it to the president.
While Bush was confident the bill would ultimately fail because Democrats lacked the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto, he kept up pressure on lawmakers. On the same day as the House vote, the president dispatched his Iraq commander, Gen. David Petraeus, and other senior defense officials to Capitol Hill to make his case: Additional forces recently sent to Iraq are yielding mixed results and the strategy needs more time to work.
Petraeus told reporters sectarian killings in Baghdad were only a third of what they were in January, before Bush began sending in additional U.S. forces. He added that progress in the troubled western Anbar province was "breathtaking," and that he thought Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was "doing his best" at leading the country.
But "the ability of Al Qaeda to conduct horrific, sensational attacks obviously has represented a setback and is an area in which we're focusing considerable attention," Petraeus said.
Petraeus said he would not touch on the "minefield of discussions about various legislative proposals," but he noted that the new strategy in Iraq was just beginning. He said he planned to provide more details in early September.
Petraeus briefed his findings to lawmakers in a private room, where protesters outside chanted "Troops home now!" Republicans and Democrats alike emerged to say Petraeus had only confirmed their positions.
"This briefing reinforced our view that the solution in Iraq is a political solution," Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters. Also confirmed, he said, was "our belief that we must hold the Iraqis accountable for achieving real progress."
Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, said Petraeus acknowledged there were challenges. "But considering where we are, I think the general feels good about the progress thus far," Boehner said.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino reiterated Bush's veto threat. In a statement issued after the vote, Perino said the House passed "disappointing legislation that insists on a surrender date, handcuffs our generals and contains billions of dollars in spending unrelated to the war."
Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said Democrats are still considering their next step. He said after Bush's veto, one option would be funding the war through September as Bush wants but setting benchmarks that the Iraqi government must meet.
"I think everything that passes will have some sort of condition (placed) on it," he said. Ultimately, Murtha added, the 2008 military budget considered by Congress in June "is where you'll see the real battle."
Petraeus' comments Wednesday put a finer point on when the much-awaited decision about the length of the U.S. troop buildup may come, saying he will make an assessment of the conditions in Iraq in early September, and report back to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other military leaders.
Gates has said he expects the assessment this summer, but this is the first time military leaders said it would not be until September.