Democrats ponder revised war funding bill

050407dems.jpgDefiant Democratic leaders in the House are considering a proposal that would pay for the Iraq war at least through July but could cut off funding after that if the Iraqi government does not meet certain political and security goals, congressional officials said Thursday.

The bill would be a direct challenge to President Bush, who has demanded Congress fund the war without strings attached. This week, Bush vetoed a $124.2 billion bill that would have funded operations in Iraq and Afghanistan while requiring troops to begin coming home on Oct. 1.

The developments occurred as White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten held compromise talks with lawmakers on Capitol Hill a day after the House failed to override Bush’s veto.

In a closed-door leadership meeting Thursday, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., suggested that the House guarantee funding of the war only through July. The bill would provide additional money for operations after that point but give Congress a chance to deny those funds be used if the Iraqi government does not meet certain benchmarks.

Under Obey’s proposal, members would vote separately on whether to fund some of the domestic spending in the Iraq bill that Bush opposed, such as agricultural assistance.

The plan was described by Democratic aides familiar with the plan who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss them. According to a senior Democratic leadership aide, the plan has not been endorsed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or in the Senate, and had yet to be described to rank-and-file members.

Obey declined to comment.

The proposal comes as Pelosi, D-Calif., tried to appease a large number of House Democrats who are reluctant to vote for a war spending bill unless it moves toward getting troops out of Iraq. Such a plan would show such Democrats that the speaker is not willing to back down to Bush and, at the same time, wants to support the troops.

The proposal, however, is unlikely to find similar backing in the Senate, where some leading Democrats say they want to fund the war through September.

One option for Pelosi would be to pass the bill only to agree to drop it later when it must be negotiated in the Senate.

Numerous other ideas are being floated in the Senate, most of which involve some combination of goals the Iraqi government must reach. The key impasse, however, is whether to require the withdrawal of U.S. troops if the benchmarks are not met.

Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Robert Byrd of West Virginia proposed Thursday a measure to repeal the 2002 resolution authorizing force in Iraq. Under the bill, Bush would be required in October to seek Congress’ blessing to continue operations in Iraq.

“If the president will not bring himself to accept reality, it is time for Congress to bring reality to him,” said Clinton, a presidential contender for 2008.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino immediately shot down Clinton’s proposal as a nonstarter, adding that such a bold suggestion was “troubling” in light of ongoing negotiations.

“Here we go again,” Perino said in a statement. “The Senate is trying another way to put a surrender date on the calendar. Welcome to politics ’08-style.”

Democrats said they were acting on a mandate from voters to end the war. But without the necessary two-thirds majority to override Bush’s veto, they’re having to rethink their approach.

For his part, Bush says it is his right as commander in chief to manage the war without interference from Congress. But with the war in its fifth year and having killed more than 3,350 U.S. troops, the commitment in Iraq has been deeply unpopular. Even GOP loyalists in Congress say that if the security situation in Iraq does not improve by fall, more Republicans will be willing to break ranks and challenge a lame-duck president.

Several Republicans, including Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and John Sununu of New Hampshire and Reps. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Adam Putnam of Florida, have said they are open to restricting the more than $5 billion in aid for Iraq if the Baghdad government does not meet certain benchmarks.

Bolten’s trip to Capitol Hill on Thursday did not yield an immediate deal between the two sides. He spent about 45 minutes talking with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., before heading to the House side to meet with Obey and Rep. Jerry Lewis. According to aides, specific proposals were not discussed.

Pelosi appointed Obey to lead the House discussions with Bush’s aides as chairman of the Appropriations Committee; Lewis, R-Calif., is ranking member of the panel.

“There is nothing off the table — including timetables” to end the war, said Reid. “Nothing.”

In a separate closed-door meeting Thursday with fellow Democrats, Pelosi echoed Reid’s remark that Democrats have not agreed to drop language on troop withdrawals. Privately, however, several Democrats had signaled they ultimately intend to do so to avoid a second veto and plan to focus their attention instead on upcoming spending bills.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said Bolten had a good meeting with Reid and McConnell that allowed both sides to express their views, but he would not elaborate. He said that it was not constructive to drag out the discussions and that the president hoped a bill could be completed soon.

Likewise, Reid described the meeting as “constructive” and “comfortable.” He said he expected Congress to be able to send Bush a new bill before the Memorial Day recess at the end of this month.

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press