The New York Times
Thursday 29 March 2007
Washington - With both houses of Congress now firmly on record in favor of withdrawing from Iraq, President Bush vowed Wednesday not to negotiate a timetable with Democrats, and a confrontation appeared inevitable as each side prepared to blame the other for delays in providing money for the war.
"Now, some of them believe that by delaying funding for our troops, they can force me to accept restrictions on our commanders that I believe would make withdrawal and defeat more likely," Mr. Bush told an audience of cattlemen and ranchers. "That's not going to happen. If Congress fails to pass a bill to fund our troops on the front lines, the American people will know who to hold responsible."
Mr. Bush and Congressional Democrats are already deadlocked over the Democrats' demands for testimony from top White House officials in an inquiry into the firing of federal prosecutors. The president's remarks on Wednesday, a day after the Senate voted for the first time in favor of setting a withdrawal date, set the stage for a second clash.
That puts Mr. Bush in the difficult position of fighting the new Democratic majority on two fronts, both the war spending and the prosecutors. On Wednesday, he seemed in no mood to back down from the war spending fight. As he quoted a newspaper editorial - from The Los Angeles Times, though he did not mention it by name - accusing Democrats of "the worst kind of Congressional meddling in military strategy," Mr. Bush appeared almost eager for a battle. And Democrats seemed eager to give it to him.
Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House speaker, said Mr. Bush should "calm down with the threats," and Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said his impression was that Mr. Bush "doesn't want anything other than a confrontation."
The president has been saying for weeks that he will veto any war spending bill that contains a withdrawal date. He reiterated that threat on Wednesday, taking particular aim at Democrats for loading the military spending bills with unrelated special interest projects above the $100 billion he has asked for the war, including $3.5 million for visitors to "tour the Capitol and see for themselves how Congress works," and $6.4 million for the House of Representatives' "salaries and expense accounts."
"I don't know what that is," Mr. Bush said wryly, "but it's not related to the war and protecting the United States of America."
The House approved its version of the spending bill last week, and the Senate was expected to approve its version on Thursday. Democrats said they were ready to begin House-Senate negotiations quickly to produce a final version to send to the president.
But with Congress scheduled to begin its Easter recess on Friday, it is nearly impossible for lawmakers to produce a final bill before the week of April 16. With Mr. Bush warning that funds will run out on April 15, forcing the Pentagon to draw from other accounts, the two sides seem certain to wind up in a blame game over who is responsible for holding up the money.
The Democratic leaders, Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Reid, tried to strike a conciliatory tone, stressing that they would deliver all the money Mr. Bush requested. In a joint letter to the president, they said they stood ready to work with the White House.
"But your threats to veto a bill that has not even been presented to you indicate that you may not be ready to work with us," the letter said.
While they are hoping to capitalize on Mr. Bush's unpopularity, Democrats acknowledged privately that they were uncertain how the finger-pointing would play out. Some recalled President Clinton's success in putting the blame on Republicans for a 1995 government shutdown.
Republicans say Mr. Bush may be unpopular, but his policy of sending additional troops to Iraq may have more support than he does. Despite a recent nationwide telephone poll by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press in which 59 percent of those who responded said they wanted their lawmakers to vote in favor of a timetable for withdrawal, aides to Mr. Bush say the public is beginning to see improvements on the ground in Iraq and is willing to give Mr. Bush's troop buildup a chance.
"We hope it doesn't have to come to this type of brinksmanship, staring down the Congress, but as you saw today the president feels very strongly," said Dan Bartlett, counselor to Mr. Bush. "The feedback we've been getting from our allies on the Hill - and we agree with them - is that this is an issue we shouldn't shirk from."
Democratic officials say the shape of the measure that will be sent to the president remains unclear, but it is almost certain to have some timeline on Iraq, given the votes in both houses. But Democrats also say they intend to pare down some of the nonwar spending in the bill to quiet Republican accusations of pork-barrel politics.
Democrats also acknowledge that even with the unpopularity of the war, they must move carefully. The House bill passed with just 218 votes, the minimum necessary to guarantee passage, and in the Senate, the provision to set a goal of pulling out by March 31, 2008, also passed narrowly, 50 to 48.
"The president does have leverage on the troops, and given the close votes, we have to be cognizant of that," said Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the House Democratic caucus. "But we have leverage on the policy and he has to be cognizant of that."
Republicans say Mr. Bush must move carefully as well. Charlie Black, a Republican strategist who is close to the White House, said the administration could win the argument with the public "if they handle it right and communicate it well." Republican leaders say they will back Mr. Bush as he tries to make the case to the public that Congress does not have the power to dictate the management of the war.
"We have a constitutional republic that says the commander in chief of our forces is the president," said Senator Mel Martinez, the Florida Republican who is also chairman of the Republican National Committee. "It gives the power of the purse to Congress; it doesn't give the power of moving troops around to Congress."