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After weeks of refusing to back down to President Bush on setting a timetable on the Iraq war, House Democratic leaders soon will be in the awkward position of explaining to members why they feel they must.
Party officials said Monday the next war spending bill most likely will fund military operations and not demand a timeline to bring troops home, although it will contain other restrictions on Bush's Iraq policies.
On May 1, Bush vetoed a $124.2 billion bill that would have paid for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan through September as Bush requested, but demanded that troops start coming home this fall.
Democrats say they hope to send Bush a new bill by the end of the week he will sign, and troops in combat will get the resources they need without disruption.
"I'm frustrated" with the war, said Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., a member of the Blue Dog coalition, a group of conservative Democrats. "But we realize too we have a responsibility to fund our troops and make sure they have the right equipment."
But Democratic leaders first will have to sway a large number of Democrats who want to end the war immediately â€” or pick up enough Republican votes to make up for the losses. Earlier this month, 171 House members voted to order the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq within nine months.
The details of the Democrats' new bill remained in flux late Monday, as Rep. David Obey was tasked with negotiating with the Senate and White House. Obey, D-Wis., is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Officials said the legislation was expected to include political and military goals for the Iraqi government to meet toward establishment of a more democratic society. Failure to make progress toward the goals could cost the Iraqis some of the reconstruction aid the United States has promised, although it was not clear whether Democrats intended to give Bush power to order the aid to be spent regardless of progress.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said softening such a restriction might not be necessary to get the president's support.
"I think at some juncture, the American people are going to say 'Mr. President, you made your point. Now sign the bill,'" said Hoyer, D-Md.
The bill also was expected to insist that U.S. troops meet certain standards before being sent into battle, out of concern from Democrats that some troops were going to Iraq without proper training. But the measure likely would give the president authority to waive this restriction.
Even if deadlines for troop withdrawals are dropped as expected, Democratic leaders are claiming victory in the high-profile fight with Bush.
For weeks, the president demanded Congress send him a "clean" bill without any restrictions on the war. Last week, a top aide told Democrats the president would accept legislation drafted by Sen. John Warner, R-Va., that would restrict U.S. aid for Iraq if Baghdad does not make progress on political and security reforms. That proposal, however, included a presidential waiver that would have allowed Bush to ignore the restriction.
The Democrats' new bill also was expected to include the first federal minimum wage increase in more than a decade, a top priority for the Democrats who took control of Congress in January.
White House officials have said Bush was amenable to accepting an increase in the minimum wage, although they and key GOP lawmakers favor larger tax cuts to accompany the measure.
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