WASHINGTON - In the standoff between President Bush and Democrats in Congress led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over funding the Iraq war, it was the Democrats who finally blinked Tuesday, at least for now.
In ceding ground, Pelosi of San Francisco and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada received scorn from many in their party's anti-war base and grudging support from others. The top Democrats said that even though they swallowed a bill far weaker than they wanted -- one with no requirement to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq -- they had laid the foundation for further confrontations with Bush over the unpopular war.
"I'm going to vote against it," Rep. James Moran, D-Va., said on MSNBC after the leadership explained the deal to the House Democratic caucus. "It seems to me that Congress should exercise the power of the purse, reflecting the will of the people. I think the will of the people is that this war be brought to a conclusion."
Pelosi and other top Democrats argued that they will gain even Republican support for that position in future showdowns with the president on the war, which has dragged into its fifth year, has cost more than $500 billion and has caused more than 3,400 U.S. military deaths.
The House Democratic leaders, who announced the deal in a grim-faced press conference Tuesday evening, maintained they had forced a stubborn president to accept benchmarks with potential repercussions in the fight over the bill to provide nearly $100 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30.
Not wanting to leave town for their weeklong Memorial Day break being accused of failing to support the troops fighting in Iraq, the frustrated Democrats dropped any withdrawal timeline from the final version of the bill worked out among House, Senate and White House negotiators. In the bill -- expected to be released today -- Democrats will drop readiness standards for units being deployed to Iraq, which were part of the first war spending bill approved by Congress but are opposed by the president.
Bush vetoed the first version of the spending bill on May 1, in large part because of language that called for an almost total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by late 2008. Democrats, who hold narrow majorities in both houses of Congress, couldn't come anywhere near to getting the two-thirds votes needed to override Bush's veto.
The new version of the spending bill is likely to gain Republican votes while it loses those of anti-war Democrats in both houses. It is expected to include benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet on political reconciliation and war efforts in order to receive about $5.7 billion in U.S. economic and reconstruction aid. The language proposed by Sen. John Warner, R-Va., however, would allow the president to provide the money even if the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fails to meet the performance goals.
A somber-looking Pelosi, a longtime opponent of the war, said she might not even vote for the war money when it comes to the House floor later this week.
"I'm not likely to vote for something that doesn't have a timetable or a goal,'' Pelosi said.
Still, she claimed a victory for those who oppose the war.
"It is a new direction in Iraq that the American people called for. The president is finally conceding he has to be accountable,'' she said.
Asked if the new bill constitutes a defeat for the Democratic leadership, Reid said, "I don't think there's any way you can stretch what we've done in this supplemental as a defeat. Look how far we've come. ... Nobody can say with any veracity that we haven't made progress. Even with the Warner language, the president is conceding to 18 benchmarks and two reporting requirements.''
Pelosi's top deputy, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the three-month fight over war funding had changed the terms of the debate in Washington.
"Neither side can do something without the other. Democrats cannot adopt a policy without the president vetoing it ... and the president cannot ignore the Congress as he did in the first six years'' of his presidency, Hoyer said.
Democratic leaders still insisted on about $20 billion in nonwar domestic spending as part of the deal. That includes money for military and veterans' health care, Hurricane Katrina relief, military base closure costs, drought aid for farmers and medical coverage for poor children. Also part of the deal is the first federal minimum wage hike in more than a decade.
Still, the leadership expects opposition from rank-and-file Democrats.
"I am looking at it closely right now,'' said Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose, an anti-war Democrat who has voted with his leaders so far. "I want to know what the rationale is.''
Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., another strong anti-war voice who has stuck with Pelosi so far, also was doubtful. "I'm not for it. I've got to look at it carefully before I decide.''
But he said the Democratic effort has been valuable. "What Democrats have done so far is assert what needs to be done, and the president refused it, giving another demonstration of this administration's irresponsibility,'' Hinchey added.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, a leader of the House Out of Iraq Caucus who has never voted for any Iraq war money, said it was clear that passage of the new spending bill will depend on Republicans.
"I think they're leaving it up to the Republicans to find their own water level. The president has prevailed at this point,'' she added.
But Republican Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois, one of 11 GOP House members who recently went to the White House to warn Bush that support for his war policy is weakening, said the new bill was a win for the president.
"This shows the power of the president's bully pulpit. He would not blink, and they did. He took a firm stand and stuck to it,'' LaHood said.
But he agreed that progress in Iraq must come quickly.
"There is very, very thin patience on the part of the American people,'' he said.
Asked if the Democrats had lost, the Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said: "There's no cheering yet. We haven't achieved the goal. But I'm optimistic we'll achieve four months' spending without a surrender date.''
Susan Shaer, co-chair of Win Without War, a coalition of more than a dozen groups, said when the fight is joined this fall on next year's military spending bill, the atmosphere in Congress will be different from today.
"The more often any member of Congress goes home and hears from constituents, the more likely they are to return wanting to end this war,'' Shaer said.
Bottom line on war spending bill
Congressional leaders have a tentative agreement to provide about $100 billion in spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through the end of the federal fiscal year Sept. 30.
President Bush and his Republican allies won by:
- Forcing Congress to strip any U.S. troop withdrawal timetables from the bill.
- Being able to deploy troops without the rest and training rules pushed by the Democrats.
- Gaining the ability to waive any consequences for the Iraqi government's failure to meet performance goals.
Democrats say they won these concessions:
- Setting war accountability measures for the first time on the White House, the Pentagon and the Iraqi government.
- Putting pressure on the president to show progress by September, when the bill to cover the costs of the war for next year reaches the House and Senate.
- Providing $20 billion for veterans' and children's health care, victims of Hurricane Katrina, military base closures and farm disaster programs.
- Gaining an increase in the federal minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour in three phases over 26 months.
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