WASHINGTON - President George W. Bush is likely to lose a first-round fight with Democrats over a critical funding bill that sets a date for American troops to withdraw from Iraq, the U.S. Senate's Republican leader said on Monday.
Mitch McConnell of Kentucky predicted legislation similar to that already passed by the House of Representatives would eventually get through the Senate, which is more narrowly controlled by Democrats.
"The final bill is likely to have the offending language in it," the Senate minority leader said as the Senate prepared to begin debating the war-funding bill, which sets March 31, 2008, as a goal for removing combat troops from Iraq.
At that point, he said, Bush would have to veto the legislation and lawmakers would have to get to work again. Democrats do not appear to have enough votes to overturn a veto, which requires a two-thirds majority.
Since taking control of Congress in January, Democrats have headed toward a confrontation with Bush over Iraq.
Bush, who is sending nearly 30,000 more troops to Iraq in an attempt to regain control of security, has vowed to veto the funding bill if it includes a timetable for withdrawal.
On Friday, the House narrowly passed a tougher Democratic-written bill mandating the end of U.S. combat in Iraq by September 1, 2008, at the latest. The Senate bill says the withdrawal date is only a goal rather than a requirement.
House and Senate negotiations, managed by Democrats, likely would result in a compromise bill with a "surrender date," McConnell said. Urging Democrats to promptly finish this first legislative round, McConnell said, "We need to have time to repass the bill without the offending language" after a veto.
The Pentagon says it will run out of money to wage wars in Iraq and Afghanistan next month unless Congress provides about $100 billion in emergency funds.
Some lawmakers say the Defense Department could probably continue current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for several more weeks while Congress hashes out the legislation.
On the other side of the Capitol, a House subcommittee chairman exploded in anger when he was told U.S. officials were recommending that Iraqis who want to resettle in the United States go first to a nearby country such as Syria -- a country Washington accuses of sponsoring terrorism.
"My God, if we're telling people to go to Syria for some humane help, who are we? Who have we become?" demanded Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat, at a House foreign affairs subcommittee hearing.
The official who testified, Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey, said the United States had accepted 692 Iraqis for resettlement since April 2003, but noted U.S. officials have pledged to interview thousands more. Ackerman said the numbers accepted were "paltry" and he would write a bill requiring the Bush administration to bring to safety Iraqis in danger because they worked for Americans.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, rebutted McConnell's portrayal of the war-funding bill as establishing a "surrender date" for the enemy.
"After four years of war, our troops deserve a strategy that will help them complete the mission so they can come home," Reid said during a Senate speech.
The Senate is trying to pass its version of the war-funding bill this week. McConnell did not rule out voting in favor of a bill, even if it has a troop withdrawal deadline.
"We need to get the bill on down to the president; get the veto out of the way and get serious on getting funding for the troops," he said.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell)
© Reuters Ltd 2007.