WASHINGTON - House Democratic leaders vowed Thursday to pass legislation setting a deadline of Sept. 1, 2008, for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq, a challenge to President Bush's war policy that drew a blunt veto threat in return.
"It would unnecessarily handcuff our generals on the ground, and it's safe to say it's a nonstarter for the president," said White House spokesman Dan Bartlett.
Little more than two months after Democrats took control of the House and Senate, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said the bill would set "dates certain for the first time in the Congress for the redeployment of our troops out of Iraq."
Officials said the deadline would be accelerated - possibly to the end of 2007 - if the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki failed to meet commitments for taking over security operations, distributing oil revenue and opening his nation's constitution to amendments.
Pelosi said Democrats would add their war-related provisions to the administration's request for nearly $100 billion to pay for the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The plan is to bring the bill to a vote by the end of the month, making it the first major test of the Democrats' power since they rode a wave of anti-war voter sentiment to midterm election victories last fall.
Across the Capitol, Senate Democrats readied a less sweeping challenge to the commander in chief.
Their version would set a target date of March 31, 2008, for the withdrawal of combat troops - but no deadline. The measure says U.S. forces could stay beyond that date only to protect U.S. personnel, train and equip Iraqi forces and carry out counterterrorism operations. "We can't stay in Iraq forever," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Reid has considerably less leeway than Pelosi, since Senate rules give Republicans greater power than their counterparts have in the House.
Presidential politics also figure in his calculations. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, a candidate for the White House, told reporters the measure includes some of the key provisions of a bill he introduced earlier this year setting a March 31, 2008, target for withdrawal. "It expresses the central insight that we can't have our troops policing a civil war," he said.
Of the 141,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, roughly 60,000 are combat forces and the rest are support troops. Bartlett attacked the House measure in comments to reporters aboard Air Force One as Bush flew to South America. "Obviously, the administration would vehemently oppose and ultimately veto any legislation that looked like what was described today," he said.
House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio led the GOP counterattack. "General (David) Petraeus should be the one making the decisions on what happens on the ground in Iraq, not Nancy Pelosi or John Murtha," Boehner said, referring to the Pennsylvania Democrat who has been heavily involved in crafting legislation designed to end U.S. participation in the war. Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have struggled in recent days to devise an approach on the war that would satisfy liberals reluctant to vote for continued funding without driving away more moderate Democrats unwilling to be seen as tying the hands of military commanders. Democratic aides said their greatest concern was persuading liberals to come aboard, and they were hoping anti-war organizations would come out in favor of the House measure. Rep. Maxine Waters of California said she told Pelosi she intended to vote no, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas said she "would have a very difficult time" supporting it. Within the House, the Progressive Caucus supports a plan to limit the use of Pentagon funds to withdrawal of troops and the "continued protection of members of the Armed Forces who are in Iraq" as well as protection of civilian contractors. It is doomed to failure, but Democratic leaders have been discussing whether to allow a vote on it if in return, liberals would then swing behind their bill. At the same time, Rep. Dennis Cardoza of California said a meeting of moderate and conservative Democrats produced strong expressions of support. "I think that this legislation gives the generals adequate flexibility to do what they need to do on the ground," he said. "At the same time it gives a certain finality that is being demanded by the American people." Officials said a Wednesday night meeting of first-term Democrats produced little opposition. "For me it supports the troops, supports the veterans and holds the president accountable," said Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Colorado. Democrats can afford only 15 defections and still be assured of passing their legislation in the House. Few Republicans are expected to vote in favor. Seeking support, the leadership added $1.2 billion to Bush's request for military operations in Afghanistan and $3.5 billion for veterans' health care and medical programs at facilities such as the recently criticized Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Domestic spending would rise $12 billion over the administration's request - and there apparently were no plans to offset the spending to prevent increases in the deficit. Searching for votes elsewhere, Pelosi signaled she was considering adding a House-passed minimum wage increase to the military spending bill, along with $1.3 billion in tax cuts that cleared earlier in the year. A provision to require Bush to get authorization from Congress to take major military action against Iran ran into turbulence from lawmakers concerned about the implications for Israel. As described by Democrats, the legislation would require Bush to certify by July 1 and again by Oct. 1 whether the Iraqi government was making progress toward providing for the country's security, allocating its oil revenues and creating a fair system for amending its constitution. If Bush certified the Iraqis were meeting those benchmarks, U.S. combat troops would have to begin withdrawing by March 1, 2008, and complete the redeployment by Sept. 1. Otherwise, the deadlines would move up. If Bush cannot make either certification, the law requires a six-month withdrawal to begin immediately. The legislation also requires the Pentagon to adhere to its existing standards for equipping and training U.S. troops sent overseas and for providing time at home between tours of combat. Bush would have authority to waive these standards, though, meaning they could not be used to prevent the buildup of troops in Baghdad that the president ordered in January.comments powered by Disqus