WASHINGTON - Defiant Democratic leaders in the House are considering a proposal that would pay for the Iraq war at least through July but cut off funding after that if the Iraqi government does not meet certain political and security goals, congressional officials said yesterday.
Such a bill would be a direct challenge to President Bush, who has demanded that Congress fund the war without strings attached. This week, Bush vetoed a $124.2 billion bill that would have funded operations in Iraq and Afghanistan while requiring troops to begin coming home Oct. 1.
The developments occurred as White House chief of staff Josh Bolten held separate meetings in the House and Senate, the first compromise talks since the House failed to override Bush's veto Wednesday.
In a closed-door leadership meeting, Rep. David R. Obey (D., Wis.) suggested that the House guarantee funding of the war only through July. The bill would provide additional money for operations after that, but would give Congress a chance to deny the use of those funds if Iraq's government does not meet certain benchmarks.
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 familiar with it who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it. According to a senior Democratic leadership aide, the plan has not been endorsed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or in the Senate, and has yet to be described to rank-and-file members.
Obey declined to comment.
The proposal comes as Pelosi (D., Calif.) tries to 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 show those Democrats that Pelosi is not willing to back down to Bush and, at the same time, wants to support the troops.
The proposal, however, 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, and most involve some combination of goals the Iraqi government must reach. The key impasse is whether to require the withdrawal of U.S. troops if the benchmarks are not met.
Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.) and Robert C. Byrd (D., W. Va.) proposed a measure yesterday to repeal the 2002 resolution authorizing force in Iraq. Under the measure, Bush would be required to seek Congress' blessing in October 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 2008 presidential contender.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino shot down Clinton's proposal as a nonstarter, saying that such a bold suggestion was "troubling" in light of ongoing negotiations.
"The Senate is trying another way to put a surrender date on the calendar," Perino said in a statement. "Welcome to politics '08-style."
Democrats said they were acting on a mandate from voters to end the war. But without a two-thirds majority to override Bush's veto, they are having to rethink their approach.
Bush says it is his right as commander in chief to manage the war without interference from Congress. But with the war in its fifth year and the death of more than 3,350 U.S. troops, the commitment in Iraq has been deeply unpopular. Even GOP loyalists in Congress say that, if security in Iraq does not improve by fall, more Republicans will be willing to break ranks and challenge a lame-duck president.