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President Bush sparred across the table with Democratic congressional leaders opposed to the Iraq war on Wednesday in a prelude to a veto showdown over a conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 3,200 U.S. troops.
During an hourlong meeting at the White House, the president told lawmakers directly he will not sign any bill that includes a timetable for a troop withdrawal, and they made it clear Congress will send him one anyway.
“We believe he must search his soul, his conscience and find out what is the right thing for the American people,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, told reporters after the session. “I believe signing this bill will do that.”
But Dana Perino, White House spokeswoman, said, “It appears that they are determined to send a bill to the president that he won’t accept. They fundamentally disagree.”
Several officials said the session was polite. But they said it turned pointed when Reid recounted a conversation with generals who likened Iraq to Vietnam and described it as a war in which the president refused to change course despite knowing victory was impossible. Bush bristled at the comparison, according to several officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was private. One quoted him as saying, “I reject” the comparison.
It was the first time Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California have met with Bush to discuss the war since the House and Senate approved bills to provide funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with conditions that he has vowed to reject.
Top GOP congressional leaders, who support Bush’s position, also attended.
Democrats hope to complete work on a House-Senate compromise in time to send it to the White House by the end of next week, with Bush’s veto a certainty.
The House-passed bill requires the withdrawal of combat troops by Sept. 1, 2008. The Senate measure is weaker, requiring the beginning of a withdrawal within 120 days and setting a nonbinding goal of March 2008 for completion.
Given the narrow Democratic majority in the Senate, it appears unlikely the compromise will include the mandatory date for a complete withdrawal, although several Democratic aides cautioned that Reid and Pelosi have yet to make a decision on that point.
At one point, according to officials familiar with the meeting, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Democrats had no intention of leaving the troops without funds and noted that gives Bush enormous leverage to bend Congress to his will. He said he hoped some sort of accommodation could be worked out and gave the president an op-ed article making the case for requiring the Iraqi government to make political reforms.
Bush responded by saying he had invented so-called benchmarks for political reforms, one official said.
Several officials said the president and congressional leaders spent considerable time on the issue, which is expected to assume a central role in war funding legislation that Congress must pass after the president vetoes the first bill.
Republicans in Congress advocate the establishment of benchmarks but without a requirement for a troop withdrawal if the Iraqis fail to meet them. Democrats tend to want to link continued U.S. participation in the war to the ability of the Iraqi government to create a fully democratic government, allocate oil resources and provide for its own security.
Outside the White House, Republicans followed Democrats to the microphones to say there was no hope Bush would sign a bill resembling the Democrats’ legislation.
House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said nothing had changed as a result of the meeting “except that people were polite, people were open, they were honest.
“The real issue … is whether we’re going to agree to a surrender date, and that’s not going to happen,” he said. Back in the Capitol, he said he would force a nonbinding vote within days on the troop withdrawal deadline.
Democrats said they were determined to press Bush for a change in policy.
“We came here in a spirit of hope, recognizing that this is a historic opportunity for the executive branch, the president and the Congress to work together to wind down this war and ensure the security of our country and the stability of the region,” said Pelosi.
Associated Press writer Ben Feller contributed to this report.
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