WASHINGTON - Democrats and the White House dangled competing plans for shaping a final Iraq spending bill, but each side rejected the other's compromise proposal in a sometimes acrimonious negotiating session yesterday.
During a 90-minute meeting in the Capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) offered to strip all domestic spending from the legislation, leaving only the $95 billion that President Bush is seeking to continue military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan through September.
The Democratic leaders also proposed reviving a troop-withdrawal schedule included in a version of the spending bill that Bush vetoed earlier this month. To make the timeline more palatable, Democrats offered Bush a waiver option and said they would drop all fixed withdrawal dates, leaving only a March 31, 2008, goal for bringing home U.S. combat troops.
White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten turned down the proposal and countered with a plan of his own. Bolten said Bush was prepared to accept benchmarks for the Iraqi government, with the results tied to U.S. reconstruction aid, and to meet tougher requirements for reporting to Congress on the progress of the war.
On Wednesday, 52 senators - including seven Democrats - voted to support a similar benchmark measure offered by Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia and other moderate Republicans who have grown increasingly critical of Bush's war policy. But Pelosi and Reid said the terms were not tough enough.
"It was disappointing," Pelosi said of the meeting.
Bolten told reporters: "It was certainly courteous and candid, and it was a lively exchange, but it was not the exchange we had hoped for."
White House officials said Bolten had arrived at the Capitol prepared to use Warner's language as the basis for discussions and to negotiate over benchmarks.
"Josh was given wide discretion to negotiate the terms," one official said. "We were willing to move off our position, both publicly and, even more so, privately."
Democrats said Bush's rejection of their offer to drop the domestic-spending provisions and to drastically dilute the original withdrawal language showed his unwillingness to alter his Iraq policy, despite widespread public opposition to the war.
In the first version of their bill, Democrats included a withdrawal provision that would have required troop withdrawals to begin later this year. Pelosi and Reid adamantly oppose the war and face strong internal pressure to do whatever is necessary to get the White House to change course.
Seeking to preserve some form of withdrawal language, the leaders offered to add the waiver loophole and to drop all dates except the March 31 goal. Bolten refused, countering with Warner's terms.
But Pelosi refused even to consider that, one senior House leadership aide said. Democrats particularly oppose tying benchmarks to reconstruction aid. The spending bill would provide $4.9 billion in reconstruction aid, but $3.9 billion would be used to pay for the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces, which the Democrats support.
That would leave just $1 billion in nonmilitary aid that could be held up if the Iraq government falls short.
"The offers that we made today represented very large steps toward compromise on our part," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey of Wisconsin, one of the Democratic negotiators. "And I think we got an inchworm response from the administration."
In the coming days, Democratic negotiators will try to settle on consequences to link to the benchmarks that congressional Republicans will find acceptable.
But they conceded that their leverage was slipping away. Reid and Pelosi have vowed to send a new bill to Bush by Friday, when Congress is scheduled to leave town for a 10-day recess. Otherwise, they said, they would keep lawmakers in town until a deal is done.