WASHINGTON - President Bush will meet with the Democratic leaders of Congress at the White House today to discuss what to do about Iraq after Bush vetoed the Democrats' war-funding bill yesterday because it contained a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops.
A bipartisan consensus appeared to be growing on Capitol Hill that any new bill to support U.S. troops in Iraq must contain benchmarks for political progress by the Iraqi government - with consequences if the Iraqis fail to meet them.
It remained unclear what benchmarks or consequences Republican lawmakers or the White House would accept, or whether congressional Republicans would continue to stand with Bush.
As he had repeatedly threatened to do, Bush vetoed the Democrats' $124 billion bill, saying, "It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing."
That "would be setting a date for failure," he said, "and that would be irresponsible."
Bush's veto - the second of his presidency - sets the stage for compromise. Aware they lack a two-thirds majority to override the veto, congressional Democrats are searching for language that could pick up enough Republican support to prevail while appealing to antiwar Democrats.
After the president spoke, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) faced TV cameras and vowed to work with Bush but not yield to him.
"The president wants a blank check," Pelosi said. "The Congress is not going to give it to him."
While Bush has insisted he will accept no withdrawal timeline, White House aides have signaled that some performance benchmarks for Iraq could be negotiable.
As the legislation headed yesterday to its inevitable veto, several Republicans expressed frustration that Bush and the Democratic leadership had insisted on a showdown rather than serious closed-door talks.
"There are a number of Republicans who do think that some kind of benchmarks, properly crafted, would actually be helpful," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.). "So I think that is an area that we can talk about."
Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, chairman of the House Republican Conference, also saw benchmarks as an avenue for compromise.
Putnam said he and other House Republicans were open to cutting off nonmilitary aid if the Iraqi government failed to meet certain benchmarks within set time frames, but not to tying troop funding to any benchmarks.
"We're willing to consider on the economic, reconstruction, civil side of the ledger," Putnam said. "I think it's premature to declare unilaterally that should be off the table."
While Republicans expressed a willingness to negotiate, Democratic leaders were less open yesterday afternoon.
"I don't want to get into a negotiation with myself," Reid said when asked about his talks with McConnell about possible compromise.
The vetoed measure set benchmarks for the Iraqi government to develop its military forces and take actions to achieve national reconciliation. If Bush didn't certify that the benchmarks were being met, the bill would have required that U.S. troops start leaving Iraq by July 1, with a goal of ending the withdrawal by Dec. 31. If the benchmarks were met, the withdrawal would begin Oct. 1.
Bush's veto capped a day heavy in symbolism for congressional opponents of the war and for a president who has staked his legacy on Iraq.
Both sides are trying to rally public opinion behind their stands.
Pelosi and Reid sent the bill to the White House after a Capitol Hill signing ceremony. It coincided with the fourth anniversary of Bush's landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier to proclaim that major combat was over in Iraq. He gave the address under a now-infamous banner that read "Mission Accomplished."
Reid said: "The president has put our troops in the middle of a civil war. Reality on the ground proves what we all know: A change of course is needed."
The White House countered with stagecraft of its own.
Bush delivered an afternoon speech at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., where he said that removing U.S. forces from Iraq would turn that country into a "cauldron of chaos." He timed his veto message for the news hour.
Some GOP lawmakers say it's time for Bush to work with Congress to come up with a workable war-funding bill.
"I know the White House wants to have open-ended latitude in how to conduct the war, and I don't think that's simply an option at this point," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R., Maine.). "My advice is to work on a bipartisan basis. I think it's essential for the president. . . . A lot has happened in Iraq, and the time has come for a change."
beginning of 2006.
SOURCES: Associated Press, State Department, Defense Department, Energy Department; Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Brookings Institution, Iraq Body Count, The Lancet, Iraqi ministries of health and education, U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, U.N. High Commission for Refugees, Committee to Protect Journalists, Harvard University, Economist Intelligence Unit, National Priorities Project, International Telecommunication Union, the Brussels Tribunal.
Anticipating President Bush's veto of the Iraq funding bill, which sets a troop- withdrawal timeline, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D., Del.) told a voter that Congress should "shove it down his throat."
Biden, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, made the comment Friday in South Carolina at Rep. James Clyburn's fish fry, a major political event for Democratic presidential candidates. The remark was captured by a C-Span camera and first reported on the Politico Web site.
When the voter asked what Congress would do if Bush vetoed the bill, Biden said he would move immediately to secure money for MRAPs - armored vehicles with raised, V-shaped hulls that help deflect the force of homemade bomb blasts.
"The idea that we're not building new humvees with the V-shaped things is just crap. Kids are dying that don't have to die," he said, adding: "Second thing is, we're going to shove it down his throat."
Marion Steinfels, a Biden campaign spokeswoman, said the comment simply revealed how important the matter was to Biden. "He is angry because he feels strongly about this," Steinfels said.