President Bush’s top aides restarted negotiations with Democrats Thursday in a quest to find bipartisan consensus on how to bankroll the protracted war in Iraq.
No deal was immediately struck and lawmakers said they planned to continue discussions early next week.
"There is nothing off the table — including timetables" to end the war, reported Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "Nothing."
The round of meetings came after Bush vetoed $124.2 billion legislation that would have funded war in Iraq — and Afghanistan as well — but also would have ordered troops to begin coming home Oct. 1.
Democrats said they were acting on a mandate from voters to end the war. But they did not have the necessary two-thirds majority to override Bush’s veto, so now they’re having to rethink their approach.
In a closed-door meeting Thursday with members, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., echoed Reid’s remark that Democrats have not agreed to drop language on troop withdrawals. Pelosi and Reid are trying to reassure more liberal members of their caucus that Democrats were not backing down. But privately, several Democrats have signaled they intend to do so to avoid a second veto and plan to focus their attention instead on upcoming spending bills.
Reid, D-Nev., met for 45 minutes in his office with White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Later, Bolten and budget director Rob Portman met with Reps. David Obey, D-Wis., and Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., the chairman and ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, respectively.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said that Bolten had a good meeting with Reid and McConnell that allowed both sides to express their views, but would not elaborate. He said it’s not constructive to drag out the discussions, and that the president hopes a bill could be finalized as soon as possible.
Likewise, Reid described the meeting as "constructive" and "comfortable." He said he anticipates Congress will able to send Bush a new bill before the Memorial Day recess at the end of this month.
Reid told reporters that Bolten offered some ideas, but declined to elaborate further on the discussion. After the meeting, Reid said he called Pelosi, who appointed Obey and Lewis to conduct the talks on the House side.
"I don’t think it helps the negotiation process to do it publicly," Reid said.
Republicans have stuck behind the president in opposing setting a firm timetable on withdrawing U.S. troops from the war, although several say they want some kind of legislation challenging Bush’s Iraq policy. More than 3,350 troops have been killed in Iraq, causing the U.S. commitment there to become deeply unpopular.
Numerous possible compromises on a new Iraq bill are being floated on Capitol Hill, all involving some combination of benchmarks. The key impasse, however, is whether to require redeployments of U.S. troops if the benchmarks are not met.
Democrats contend that initiating troop withdrawals will pressure Iraqis into making the necessary political compromises. Republicans say the Iraqis could still refuse to work together and the consequence would be a blood bath.
As lawmakers remain deadlocked on this point, they are finding common ground on at least one topic: They are furious that Iraqi politicians are considering a lengthy break this summer.
"If they go off on vacation for two months while our troops fight — that would be the outrage of outrages," said Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn.
Added Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb: "I certainly hope they’re not going to take any sort of recess when the question is whether they’re going to make any progress."
The Iraq parliament’s recess, starting this July, would likely come without Baghdad politicians reaching agreements considered key to easing sectarian tensions. Examples include regulating distribution of the country’s oil wealth and reversing measures that have excluded many Sunnis from jobs and government positions because of Baath party membership.
Iraqi politicians said Thursday the break might not happen or may be less than two months, but said it should be of no concern to U.S. lawmakers.