The stage is set

Democratic congressional leaders on Tuesday sent Iraq legislation setting timetables for U.S. troop withdrawals to President Bush and a certain veto.

On the fourth anniversary of the president’s “Mission Accomplished” speech, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that Bush “has put our troops in the middle of a civil war. A change of course is needed.”

Bush, meeting in Florida with military commanders, said such an approach could turn Iraq into a “cauldron of chaos.”

The White House said the president would veto the bill on his return to the White House and then go before television cameras at 6:10 p.m. EDT, just before the evening news shows, to make a statement.

“Success in Iraq is critical to the security of free people everywhere,” Bush said at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., the headquarters of U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, including Iraq.

The Democratic leaders staged a special ceremony to send the legislation — approved by both the House and Senate last week — on its way to the White House.

On Wednesday, Bush is to meet with congressional leaders from both parties, including Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to begin discussing a substitute bill.

“This legislation honors the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform,” Pelosi said at the ceremony in the Capitol. She and Reid signed an “enrollment” document authorizing the legislation to be sent to the White House.

Pelosi said that provisions of the measure respect “the wishes of the American people to end the Iraq war.”

Formal signing ceremonies for this step in the legislative process are rare.

From the Capitol to the White House, it was a day of political theater, and Democrats were careful not get ahead of the script. Pelosi and Reid both declined to discuss what legislation they hope to pass after Bush vetoes the $124.2 billion measure.

“I don’t want to get into a negotiation with myself,” Reid said when asked about conversations with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

McConnell said earlier in the day that Republicans would agree to provisions that lay out standards for the Iraqi government to meet in creating a more stable and democratic society.

“A number of Republicans think that some kind of benchmarks properly crafted would be helpful,” he said. Bush and GOP allies have said they will oppose legislation that ties progress on such standards to a withdrawal of U.S. combat forces.

Separately, Bush has complained about several billion dollars in domestic spending that Democrats put in the bill, including about $3.5 billion in disaster aid for farmers.

Without enough votes to override Bush’s veto, Democrats are considering writing a new bill that would fund the troops but not give the president a blank check. A likely option is demanding the Iraqi government meet benchmarks.

Some Republicans say they would support tying goals for Iraqi self-defense and democracy to the more than $5 billion provided to Iraq in foreign aid, but would do nothing to tie the hands of military commanders.

“House Republicans will oppose any bill that includes provisions that undermine our troops and their mission, whether it’s benchmarks for failure, arbitrary readiness standards or a timetable for American surrender,” said Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.

When he announced a U.S. troop increase in January, Bush said Iraq’s government must crack down equally on Shiites and Sunnis, equitably distribute oil wealth, refine its constitution and expand democratic participation. He attached no consequences if these benchmarks were not met.

In his Florida remarks, the president did not explicitly mention the war spending legislation. But he made clear his opposition to its requirement that troops begin to be withdrawn by Oct. 1, and defended his policy of increasing troop levels.

Bush said that pulling American forces from Baghdad before Iraqis are capable of defending themselves would have disastrous results — giving al-Qaida terrorists a haven from which to operate and an inspiration for new recruits and new attacks.

“Withdrawal would have increased the probability that coalition troops would be forced to return to Iraq one day and confront an enemy that is even more dangerous,” he said in remarks to representatives from countries participating in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. “Failure in Iraq should be unacceptable to the civilized world.”

Bush’s comments and expected veto come exactly four years after his speech on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln decorated with a huge “Mission Accomplished” banner. In that address, a frequent target of Democrats seeking to ridicule the president, he declared that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”

At the time, Bush’s approval rating was 63 percent, with the public’s disapproval at 34 percent.

Four years later, with over 3,300 U.S. troops killed in Iraq and the country gripped by unrelenting violence and political uncertainty, only 35 percent of the public approves of the job the president is doing, while 62 percent disapprove, according to an April 2-4 poll from AP-Ipsos.

The anniversary prompted a protest in Tampa not far from where Bush spoke. “He’s hearing us. He’s just not listening to us,” said Chrystal Hutchison, who demonstrated with about two dozen others under a “Quagmire Accomplished” banner.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker acknowledged Tuesday that there “is something of an al-Qaida surge going on” in Iraq, with the group using suicide car bombs as its principal weapons, but he said that doesn’t mean the U.S.-Iraqi campaign isn’t working.

“We’re just fighting at a number of levels here against a number of different enemies,” Crocker told reporters during a videoconference from Baghdad.

–ANNE FLAHERTY and JENNIFER LOVEN

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press

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