WASHINGTON - The Senate approved a $124 billion Iraq spending bill yesterday that would force troop withdrawals to begin as early as July 1, inviting President Bush's veto even as party leaders and the White House launch talks to resolve their differences.

The 51-46 vote was a triumph for Democrats, who just weeks ago had worried about the political wisdom of a veto showdown with the commander in chief as troops fight on the battlefield. But Democrats are hesitant no more. And now that withdrawal language has passed both houses of Congress, even Republicans acknowledge that Bush will not get the spending bill he has demanded.

Bush is expected to veto the bill early next week. But bipartisan negotiations have already started on a compromise to cool the red-hot war debate, at least on the funding front.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) spoke with Bush yesterday morning and later held initial talks with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.). Senior Democratic and Republican lawmakers began to weigh alternatives to the legislation's most contentious provision, the binding withdrawal terms. The goal is to be more flexible but still restrain how Bush conducts the war.

Sen. John W. Warner (R., Va.), who has criticized Bush's war policy but opposed the Democratic bill as heavy-handed, singled out a development that has stoked a more cooperative spirit on Capitol Hill: word that the Iraqi parliament may recess for two months this summer.

"That would send a very bad signal to the world that they don't have the resolve that matches the resolve of the brave troops that are fighting in the battle today," Warner said.

The provision most likely to survive the next round is a set of political and diplomatic benchmarks for the Iraqi government. The language all but certain to be dropped, or at least diluted, would require troop withdrawals to begin as early as July 1 and no later than Oct. 1.

Another sticking point is the $21 billion of domestic spending in the bill, which Bush and some Republicans have protested as pork.

A significant number of Republicans support the benchmarks - possibly enough to override a second veto, should Bush resort to that. They would prod Baghdad officials to build up military forces, crack down on militias and sectarian violence, protect minority rights, and manage Iraq's extensive petroleum reserves.

Bush announced the benchmarks in January in a televised address but set forth no consequences if Iraq failed to deliver. The spending bill would make progress contingent on a continued U.S. troop commitment, but only to a point.

Under the bill, on July 1, if Bush decides the Iraqis are falling short, U.S. combat forces would be withdrawn over six months. If the government shows progress, the window would be extended until Oct. 1, with troops leaving by March.

GOP leaders signaled yesterday that they were ready to negotiate. In the House, which passed the bill late Wednesday largely along party lines, Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) said the veto "will give us a chance to sit down with our colleagues across the aisle and find common ground." McConnell said that "there are a number of members . . . who do think that benchmarks could be helpful, depending upon how they're crafted."

While a deadline for bringing the troops home would not survive a veto, the Democrats' legislative victory is significant, beating expectations on both sides of the aisle.

But it also opens the door to complicated new challenges. House and Senate leaders must establish terms that are tough enough to satisfy a large antiwar faction, particularly in the House. At the same time, they must water down the bill to a point where Bush will sign it.

Bush, Vice President Cheney, and other administration officials accuse Democrats of crass political posturing.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino called the spending bill "defeatist legislation" and reiterated Bush's pledge to veto it. But she added that the president "looks forward to working with congressional leaders to craft a bill that he can sign."

In yesterday's vote, Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) opposed the spending bill; all other Philadelphia-area senators voted in favor of it.

As the second phase of the spending debate unfolds, antiwar lawmakers are pressuring Democratic leaders to seek the most stringent terms possible. One idea is to pass a shorter-term funding bill - possibly for $30 billion to $40 billion - that would allow Congress to revisit the war in several months.

One champion of this approach is Rep. John P. Murtha (D., Pa.), a senior appropriator with strong military ties who has emerged as one of Bush's strongest critics. Murtha is advocating a 60-day bill that would provide enough money for operations, maintenance and personnel while carrying the current legislation's provisions on benchmarks and readiness standards for deploying troops.

Senate Democrats worry that the shorter duration is impractical. But Reid confirmed yesterday that it was in the mix.

Democratic leaders expect the negotiations on a new bill to run at least through mid-May.

Petraeus: War May Get Harder

The U.S. military commander in Iraq

said yesterday that

the war effort may well get harder before it

gets easier and that American casualties were likely to continue climbing.

Speaking as the Senate was passing legislation to start withdrawing U.S. forces this fall, Gen. David Petraeus said the war would require "an enormous commitment" by the United States. And while some sectarian killings have dropped by two-thirds in recent months, he said, the overall level of violence in Iraq is largely the same.

Petraeus also gave new

details on what he called "exceedingly unhelpful activities" by Iran, including links to an extremist cell that planned and carried out the Jan. 20 abduction and murder of five U.S. soldiers He said U.S. troops found a 22-page document during a raid last month that outlined details of that attack on the provincial headquarters in Karbala. Brothers Qais and Laith al-Khazaali were detained in the attack.

The Khazaali network "is directly connected to the Iranian Quds Force, received money, training, arms, ammunition," and sometimes "even advice and assistance and direction," Petraeus said. But he said there was no direct evidence yet of specific Iranian involvement in the Karbala incident.

- Associated Press

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