Sen. Harry Reid
Sen. Harry Red (AFP)

The top Democrat in the US Senate Friday staked out the next tussle between Congress and the White House over Iraq, arguing that political sands were shifting against President George W. Bush.

Senator Harry Reid probed anew at signs of cracks in Republican support for Bush's strategy, hours after the House of Representatives defied Bush's veto threat and voted to fund the war in installments of only a few months.

"In just the last few days, we have seen our Republican colleagues tell the president that his war strategy is failing," Reid said on the Senate floor.

"This is a welcome shift. It is encouraging."

The White House has denied Republican backing is fraying over the president's plan to surge nearly 30,000 more troops into Iraq, despite comments by several key Republicans in recent days that strategy changes might be needed if there is no demonstrable progress in Iraq by September.

In the latest twist of a fierce political joust for control of the war, the House of Representatives voted 221 to 205 late Thursday to release 43 billion dollars (32 billion euros) in emergency war funds.

The measure would handcuff Bush by requiring him to show progress in Iraq in July before he can collect another 53 billion dollars in financing.

The legislation now moves to the more closely divided Senate, where the split financing component appears unlikely to survive, lining up an intense round of legislative bartering over the bill Bush will be asked to sign.

"The House of Representatives is a different body than we are, the majority party there can do what they want to do — we can't do that," Reid said.

"The Senate is divided as we speak 50-49, so we have to work together on this."

Senior White House and Senate aides have been holding discrete talks in search of a compromise on a war funding bill to replace the 124 billion dollar version vetoed by Bush last week over Democratic troop withdrawal timetables.

Both Republicans and Democrats hope a reconciled version of the bill can be agreed and sent to Bush to sign by the end of May.

An aide to Reid declined to say on Friday whether talks were taking place Friday or would happen at the weekend, or when the issue would come up on the Senate floor.

Reid said Thursday that White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten had presented him with a proposal, but refused to divulge its contents.

Also on Thursday, Bush reached out to Democrats and anxious Republicans by saying that inserting security, military and political benchmarks in the legislation that Iraq will be required to meet, made sense.

In another new move Friday, respected Virginia Republican Senator John Warner, who is preparing his own legislation on benchmarks, said he would like to see Bush report on conditions in Iraq before Congress's August recess.

Warner said he would like Bush to say whether "some change in strategy must be brought about" in order to ensure success of the original surge plan.

The debate is likely to sharpen on what penalty the fragile Iraqi government would pay for missing such targets.

Some senators want General David Petraeus, commander of US troops in Iraq, to be required to set a timetable for withdrawing US combat troops should Iraqis fall short.

That is likely to be opposed by the White House, but another option would see Iraq forfeit certain kinds of financial aid in the event of a failure to comply with the targets.

Vice President Dick Cheney, who just visited Iraq, told Fox News the benchmarks wrangle was simply "Washington talk" and noted Iraqis surely felt more pressured to act by raging violence than threats from Congress.

But House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi argued: "benchmarks without consequences and enforcement are meaningless."

Bush wielded his veto for only the second time last week to strike down the previous bill tying war funding to the timeline to start bringing home 146,000 troops in Iraq in October, from a war which has killed 3,386 of their comrades.

Pressure on the president was underscored by news of a White House visit by 11 concerned Republican House members on Tuesday, which followed warnings by top Republicans that a "Plan B" might be needed if there is no clear success by September for the current US surge in Iraq.

September is emerging as a possible make-or-break point for US Iraq strategy, as General David Petraeus, US commander in the country, is expected to outline results of the surge.

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