Bush vetoes war spending bill
WASHINGTON - With President Bush's veto Tuesday of a war-spending bill that demanded timelines for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Democratic congressional leaders will be pressed to find a way to fund troops on the front line while keeping pressure on the administration to wind down an unpopular war.
Bush faces his own challenge: to find a compromise with Democrats who gained power on a wave of public opposition to the war and who insist that they will not give the president a blank check to continue his Iraq policy.
Timing his veto for evening television newscasts, Bush said, "It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing. . . . All the terrorists would have to do is mark their calendars and gather their strength."
Insisting that "setting a timeline for withdrawal is setting a date for failure," the president called on Congress to pass a spending bill he can sign. "Many Democrats saw this bill as an opportunity to make a political statement about their opposition to the war. They sent their message, and now it is time to put politics behind us and support our troops with the funds they need."
After four months of sparring between the White House and Congress, the veto of the $124 billion war bill came as no surprise. The question now, for both president and Congress, is finding a formula for continued funding of a disputed war that both can accept. That work could start Wednesday, at a White House meeting of congressional leaders and the president.
"He has said no to timelines, and we have said no to a blank check," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., chairman of the House Democratic caucus. "Those things are off the table, and everything else is on the table. . . . There is no way he is getting that money without a change in policy."
The confrontation capped a day of high political stagecraft, with Bush traveling to the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command in Tampa to press his case for the war, with congressional leaders holding an unusual flag-draped signing ceremony for their spending bill and Bush swiftly announcing his veto in the Cross Hall of the White House, ensuring that Democrats would not have the last word of the day on the evening news.
Several alternatives could be possible, according to congressional sources, including tying additional war spending to benchmarks for Iraqi progress while also allowing the president a "waiver" for keeping troops in Iraq even if those milestones are not met.
Any measure, however, must delicately balance possible defections from the most insistent antiwar Democrats, such as Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., with possible pick-up votes for the measure from moderate Republicans.
"The issue will be, how do we keep up the heat" on Bush, Schakowsky said, citing her sole criterion for a compromise: "Does it help move the ball downfield to ending the war?"
Schakowsky said she isn't sure she can support a bill without a timeline for withdrawals.
Of course, any compromise would require a thumbs-up from the White House, with Democrats lacking the votes to override the president's veto of withdrawal timelines that passed only narrowly.
"The most important thing is we don't want anything that is going to hamstring the military," said White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, noting that "the idea of benchmarks is hardly new" and voicing optimism about an agreement. "The president is pretty confident that we are going to get to a place where we are going to get the kind of flexibility we need and at the same time send the message to the Iraqis that we want to succeed."
One potential scenario could link benchmarks for progress in Iraq to redeployment of American troops away from urban areas and into Iraq's desert regions, according to Emanuel, who met privately with other Democratic leaders Tuesday.
Acknowledging the difficulty in holding Democrats together for a compromise, Emanuel also predicted that House Republicans would be eager to sign on to a deal that gains White House approval. Now, he said, "we've got to figure out the combination to the lock."
Before the veto, Democrats defended their bill at an unusual "signing ceremony."
"This legislation respects the wishes of the American people to end the Iraq war," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has accused Bush of being in "a state of denial" over a war already "lost," said the timelines that Congress passed could remove troops from an "intractable civil war" and insisted that the veto "means denying our troops the resources and the strategy they need."
Congressional leaders weren't the only ones lamenting the veto.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste, a critic of Bush's war policy, said of the president: "His stubborn commitment to a failed strategy in Iraq is incomprehensible. He committed our great military to a failed strategy in violation of basic principles of war. . . . We deserve more from our commander-in-chief and his administration."
With Bush freshly returned from the Central Command in Florida, where the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are managed, congressional leaders delivered their spending bill on the fourth anniversary of the president's "Mission Accomplished" appearance on an aircraft carrier to declare that major combat had concluded in Iraq.
The White House denounced the timing as a "PR stunt."
"It is a trumped-up political stunt that is the height of cynicism," said Dana Perino, deputy press secretary. "That speech has been widely misconstrued. . . . The president did say we had a long and difficult road ahead of us (in Iraq). We're moving from a dictatorship to democracy."
Pelosi dismissed the complaint. "The fact is that the bill passed last week," she said, explaining that paperwork had been completed Monday and she had been away for a funeral. "Today is the first day that I can sign the bill."