Dems Back Down, Approve War Money
WASHINGTON — Bowing to President Bush, the Democratic-controlled House reluctantly approved fresh billions for the Iraq war on Thursday, minus the troop withdrawal timeline that drew his earlier veto.
The 280-142 vote sent the bill to the Senate for final passage, expected later in the evening.
"The Iraqi government needs to show real progress in return for America's continued support and sacrifice," said Bush, and he warned that August could prove to be a bloody month for U.S. troops in Baghdad's murderous neighborhoods.
Five months in power on Capitol Hill, Democrats coupled their concession to the president with pledges to challenge his policies anew. "This debate will go on," vowed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, announcing plans to hold votes by fall on four separate measures seeking a change in course.
From the White House to the Capitol, the day's events closed out one chapter in an epic struggle pitting Congress against commander in chief over the future of a war that has claimed the lives of more than 3,400 U.S. troops.
House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio choked back tears as he stirred memories of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "After 3,000 of our fellow citizens died at the hands of these terrorists, when are we going to take them on? When are we going to defeat them?" he asked.
In a highly unusual maneuver, House Democratic leaders crafted a procedure that allowed their rank and file to oppose money for the war then step aside so Republicans could provide the bulk of votes needed to send it to the Senate for final approval.
Moments earlier, the House voted 348-73 to include a separate package of domestic spending.
After months of struggle with the White House, Democrats emphasized their reluctance to allow the war to continue.
"I hate this agreement," added Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who played a key role in talks with the White House that yielded the measure.
Presidential politics spiced the proceedings across the Capitol.
Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, alone among the Senate's Democratic White House hopefuls, pledged in advance to oppose the bill. Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware said he supported it.
That left Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois publicly uncommitted in the hours leading to the vote, two leading White House rivals tugged in one direction by the needs of 165,000 U.S. troops — and in another by party activists demanding rejection of the legislation.
After the previous bruising veto battle, Democratic leaders said they hoped to clear the bill for Bush's signature by this Memorial Day weekend. The president rejected an earlier measure, objecting to a troop withdrawal timetable, and the House failed to override his objection.
The legislation includes nearly $95 billion to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through Sept. 30. In addition to jettisoning their plan for a troop withdrawal timeline, Democrats abandoned attempts to require the Pentagon to adhere to troop training, readiness and rest requirements unless Bush waived them.
The bill establishes a series of goals for the Iraqi government to meet as it strives to build a democratic country able to defend its own borders. Continued U.S. reconstruction aid would be conditioned on progress toward the so-called benchmarks, although Bush retains the authority to order that the funds be spent regardless of how the Baghdad government performs.
In exchange for providing the war money on Bush's terms, Democrats won White House approval for about $17 billion in spending above what the administration originally sought. Roughly $8 billion of that was for domestic programs from hurricane relief to farm aid to low-income children's health coverage.
Democrats also won a top priority — the first minimum wage increase in more than a decade. The current federal wage floor of $5.15 an hour will go to $7.25 in three separate installments of 70 cents.
Reflecting unhappiness among conservatives in his own party, Bush said he would have preferred less domestic spending than the bill contained. "But, still, by voting for this bill members of both parties can show our troops and the Iraqis and the enemy that our country will support our servicemen and women in harm's way," he said at a Rose Garden news conference.
One of the most vocal war critics in Congress readily agreed. "This is not a game. They run out of money next week," said Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, whose speech opposing Bush's Iraq policy more than a year ago was a turning point in the debate.
Bush ordered the deployment of an additional five brigades to Iraq in January to try and quell sectarian violence, and he said summer would be critical to the fate of the new strategy.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, has pledged to report to the administration and Congress in September on the progress made in the war, and Bush conceded that al-Qaida terrorists and illegal militias will make sure there is heavy fighting in the interim to try and sap the will of the United States.
"And so, yes, it could be a bloody — it could be a very difficult August," he said.
He said he wants to see American troops "in a different configuration at some point in time in Iraq." He said that meant moving from mostly combat to training, border security and special forces anti-terror operations.
"However," Bush said, "it's going to require taking control" of Baghdad.
With a new poll showing that 80 percent of self-described independents oppose the war, it was unclear how long Bush could fend off his Democratic critics in Congress — or even count on Republicans to hold firm.
"It seems to me it's time for them (Iraqi troops) to show what is their ability and professionalism to step up," said Sen. John Warner, R-Va. He said if conditions do not improve by mid-July, the president should reconsider his strategy.
For now, though, Republicans focused their rhetoric on the threat to the United States if terrorists should triumph.
"We cannot and will not abandon the Iraqis to be butchered by these terrorists in their midst," said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif. "And we cannot and will not abandon our mission just as real progress is starting to be made."
Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press.