Angling for the upper hand, President Bush told Democratic lawmakers on Thursday that their effort to end the war in Iraq is futile and will only undermine the military.
Bush changed his venue, trading the White House for a high school gym in Republican-friendly territory north of Dayton, Ohio. To set a looser tone, he took questions from the crowd.
But his message was the same: He will veto legislation that orders U.S. troops to come home, and Democrats in Congress do not have the votes to override him.
The president took particular aim at setting deadlines for the end of the war, as the Democrats have been trying to do.
“If you’re a young commander on the ground, or an Iraqi soldier, and you’ve been tasked with a mission to help provide security for a city, and an enemy hears that you’re leaving soon, it affects your capacity to do your job,” Bush said at Tippecanoe High School.
“I think it’s a mistake for Congress to tell the military how to do its job,” he said.
Bush depends on Congress to approve the money he needs for war operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House and Senate have approved different war-funding bills that include timetables for troops to leave Iraq. They are negotiating a final version.
The president is sure to veto it, which means the Democratic-led Congress will have to try again, perhaps with softer language that still aims to speed up progress by the Iraqi government.
He chose a town-hall meeting in Tipp City, a community of roughly 10,000 people, to make his case. Miami County voters chose Bush over Democrat John Kerry by nearly a 2-to-1 margin in 2004. The district is represented by House Minority Leader John Boehner, a Bush defender.
Bush, standing alone on stage, was surrounded on all sides by the audience. The president said he was concerned about the potential consequences of Iran’s suspected campaign to acquire nuclear weapons. “I’ve very worried about a nuclear arms race in the Middle East,” Bush said.
One man asked Bush about the comparison between the wars in Iraq and Vietnam. The questioner suggested they aren’t comparable, and Bush, not surprisingly, agreed with him.
Bush said Iraqis have participated in free elections, and the U.S. military is now a voluntary force. “There are some similarities, of course,” Bush said of the wars. “Death is terrible.”
Another man asked Bush how he felt about his poll numbers.
“I’ve been in politics long enough to know that polls just go ‘poof,’” Bush said.
Despite Bush’s unpopularity, his aides contend his arguments resonate with people â€” mainly, that Democrats are micromanaging the military and bloating a war bill with wasteful spending. His top defense officials warn they need money soon or troops in harm’s way will suffer.
Outside the school, Julia Goodman, 40, of Riverside, was among five protesters. She said her family was told Wednesday that her nephew’s Humvee had been hit by an explosive device in Iraq.
“He’s lost his hearing,” she said. “This is the fourth time he’s been injured over there and has yet to get a Purple Heart,” Goodman said. “That’s one reason why I’m really angry about this whole thing going on. These boys are over there and fighting and they’re not getting any recognition for what they’re going.”
Back in Washington, Democratic leaders held a news conference with state lawmakers to demonstrate the scope of opposition to the war in Iraq.
“They know that the president’s policies have failed, and want us to work together to fully provide for our troops, hold the Iraqi government accountable, and find a responsible end to the conflict,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
AP reporter James Hannah contributed to this report
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