Even as Pentagon planners search for ways to shift the Iraq mission from combat to support with fewer U.S. troops, Democrats plan to raise their pressure on President Bush to end U.S. involvement in the unpopular war.
Bush signed a war spending bill late Friday that does not set a date for U.S. troop withdrawals. It was a defeat for Democrats who want the president to start pulling troops out of Iraq â€” an idea roundly rejected by administration officials.
In a fiery preview of a possible 2008 election match-up, US Senators Barack Obama and John McCain traded political potshots over Iraq Friday, and Hillary Clinton also faced a Republican barrage.
A day after the US Congress sent President George W. Bush a new 100 billion dollar war budget, stripped of Democratic troop withdrawal dates, raw emotions over the war spiced up the already simmering 2008 White House race.
Republican candidate McCain complained that Senate votes by Democrats Clinton and Obama against the mammoth funding measure Thursday night were tantamount to "waving a white flag to Al-Qaeda."
Courting the anti-war constituency, Democratic presidential rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama both voted against legislation that pays for the Iraq war but lacks a timeline for troop withdrawal.
"I fully support our troops" but the measure "fails to compel the president to give our troops a new strategy in Iraq," said Clinton, a New York senator.
"Enough is enough," Obama, an Illinois senator, declared, adding that President Bush should not get "a blank check to continue down this same, disastrous path."
Their votes Thursday night continued a shift in position for the two presidential hopefuls, both of whom began the year shunning a deadline for a troop withdrawal.
Democrats may have lost the first round with President Bush on ending the war in Iraq since taking over Congress in January, but they say their fight has just begun.
In the months ahead, lawmakers will vote repeatedly on whether U.S. troops should stay and whether Bush has the authority to continue the war. The Democratic strategy is intended to ratchet up pressure on the president, as well as on moderate Republicans who have grown tired of defending Bush administration policy in a deeply unpopular war.
"I feel a direction change in the air," said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the House panel that oversees military funding.
Congress approved a multi-billion dollar Iraq war budget Thursday, after bowing to President George W. Bush's demands to rip out troop withdrawal timelines that prompted a previous veto.
After a day of anguished debate reflecting sharp divisions over the unpopular war, the House of Representatives voted 280-142 to fund the war through September, and the Senate concurred by 80 votes to 14.
The votes left many anti-war Democrats with a sour taste but acknowledging they lack the power to thwart Bush's war strategy, despite controlling Congress, and Republicans crowing they had beaten Democratic "surrender dates."
Democratic presidential contenders on Capitol Hill will cast critical votes on the Iraq war this week, when lawmakers decide on a $120 billion bill to keep military operations afloat through September. The House planned to vote Thursday with the Senate to follow suit by week's end.
The legislation does not set the deadline for U.S. troop withdrawals many Democrats wanted. Unable to achieve the two-thirds majority needed to override one presidential veto because of such a deadline â€” or the threat of another â€” Democratic leaders announced Tuesday they would proceed to provide money for the war anyway because they wanted to support the troops.
Republicans and Democrats alike are claiming victory as Congress moves toward passing this week a final Iraq spending bill that funds the war and does not order troops home.
"Democrats have finally conceded defeat in their effort to include mandatory surrender dates in a funding bill for the troops, so forward progress has been made for the first time in this four-month process," said House Republican leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
But as Republicans celebrated, Democrats said the final bill was an example of how far they had been able to push the White House, which initially demanded no restrictions on war funding and opposed the more than $20 billion in domestic and military spending added by the Democrats.
President George W. Bush won a battle over nearly $100 billion to fund the Iraq war as congressional Democrats on Tuesday abandoned troop withdrawal efforts for now but pledged to try again in July.
Instead of setting schedules for withdrawing U.S. troops, it appeared the Democratic-run Congress and the Republican White House agreed for the first time to include conditions prodding Baghdad to make better progress toward quelling violence or risk losing some U.S. reconstruction aid.
"We've been led to believe that that is the language that is likely to be in the final version," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told reporters.
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.
A battle over Memorial Day has erupted and it's an ugly one.
It began last week when Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards called on Americans to speak out and rally against the Iraq war on Memorial Day. That triggered a vehement rebuke from the American Legion, which called the suggestion a "revolting" attempt to sully a hallowed day.