Is compromise possible?

President Bush and congressional Democrats don’t agree about much when it comes to the Iraq war, but one of the areas where they disagree the least is the need to measure the Baghdad government’s progress.

That makes the issue ripe for negotiation in an evolving veto struggle over the war, even though the administration and its critics are fiercely at odds when it comes to how — and whether — to enforce these so-called benchmarks for self-defense and democracy in Iraq’s post-Saddam Hussein era.

“The problem is, why tie our own hands?” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday. “And that’s the problem with having so-called consequences for missing the benchmarks,” she added, in effect warning Congress not to pass a timetable for a troop withdrawal by another name.

Democrats began laying out their own case in public last week, even before they passed war-funding legislation that Bush has said he will veto.

“If the president doesn’t want to enforce the timelines the U.S. Congress has proposed for reduction of the number of troops in Iraq, he should at least be willing to enforce timelines the Iraqi government has set for itself,” Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said after participating in a White House meeting on the war.

Any serious attempt at compromise will wait until later in the week, after Bush has carried out his veto of the war-funding bill and its attached withdrawal timetable. The measure sets a deadline of Oct. 1 for the withdrawal to begin, with a goal of completion six months later.

The president said Friday his veto will be sustained, and no Democrat has stepped forward to challenge his prediction.

Bush also has invited the leaders of both parties to the White House on Wednesday. And he said that once he casts his veto he’ll be ready to work with Democrats on a new version that provides funds without strings attached.

Bush is “willing to work with the Democrats on benchmarks,” the House Republican leader, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, told reporters last week.

Barring a change in plans, Democrats have signaled they intend to jettison the timeline from the follow-up bill they draft. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and others insist they will not send the president a blank check to prosecute a war that so far has claimed the lives of more than 3,300 U.S. troops.

Administration officials give Bush credit for injecting the issue of benchmarks into the public debate about the war.

“I have made it clear to the prime minister and Iraq’s other leaders that America’s commitment is not open-ended,” he said in a speech in January in which he also announced an increase in troop strength to try to curtail sectarian violence, particularly in the Baghdad area.

“If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people — and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people,” the president said.

He also said the Iraqis would increase their own commitment to quell sectarian violence, and he noted several other promises the Iraqi government had made.

These included approving legislation to share oil revenue among all Iraqis, spending $10 billion on job-creating reconstruction projects, holding provincial elections, overhauling de-Baathification laws and creating a fair process for considering amendments to the constitution.

“America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced,” Bush said.

In his speech, the president did not threaten any specific consequences for the government — or any impact on U.S. participation in the war — if the benchmarks were not met.

Republicans in the House and Senate, too, have embraced the benchmark concept, along the lines Bush favors.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona and other Republicans introduced legislation in February saying that Iraq’s political leaders “must show visible progress toward meeting” 11 benchmarks, including those the president laid out.

In the House, Republicans backed a different version that several GOP aides say was intended to signal to the administration as well as the Iraqi government — and the public — that patience was limited.

It called on Bush to certify every 30 days that the Iraqi government was “fully cooperating” with U.S. efforts in the country in several areas. Among them were purging its security forces of members with ties to insurgents and denying terrorists sanctuaries on Iraqi territory. Iraq also was to have “made demonstrable progress” toward completing a purge of security forces of all members with ties to insurgents, sectarian militias and terrorism.

Democrats inserted benchmarks into the legislation that Bush is expected to veto later this week.

Under the measure, the Iraqi government would be called on to meet standards for developing its own forces, giving the United States the authority to pursue extremists, establishing a militia disarmament program, pursuing reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite Iraqis, revising its de-Baathification program, enacting legislation to allocate oil resources, reducing sectarian violence and protecting minority rights.

The particulars are similar to the benchmarks Bush laid out last winter.

But Democrats went one step further, specifically tying the Iraqi government’s progress to the U.S. military’s deployment.

Under the soon-to-be-vetoed bill, if Bush cannot certify by July 1 that Iraq is meeting the benchmarks, the United States “shall commence to redeploy” troops by that date.

Otherwise, the withdrawal would begin on Oct. 1.

–DAVID ESPO

___

David Espo is AP’s chief congressional correspondent.

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press