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Veto of Iraq spending bill forces Democrats to weigh difficult concessions

WASHINGTON – President Bush showed little appetite for compromise Wednesday, hours ahead of a session with congressional leaders aimed at crafting a new bill to fund the war in Iraq.

Fresh from his Tuesday night veto of spending legislation that set timelines for U.S. troop withdrawals, Bush stuck firmly to his demands on what a follow up bill should look like. The Democrats who control Capitol Hill, and their Republican counterparts, were due at the White House Wednesday afternoon for discussions with the president, just after a planned attempt in the House – sure to fail – to override Bush’s veto.

The 1 p.m. EST vote was primarily procedural, as Democrats lacked the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto. Prospects for override were similarly bleak in the Senate.

“I am confident that with goodwill on both sides that we can move beyond political statements and agree on a bill that gives our troops the funds and flexibility to do the job that we asked them to do,” the president said in a speech in Washington before The Associated General Contractors of America.

Of the original bill pushed through Congress by Democrats, Bush said: “It didn’t make any sense to impose the will of politicians over the recommendations of our military commanders in the field.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters Wednesday that he hopes to have a new bill passed in the House in two weeks, with a final bill sent to the president before the Memorial Day recess.

“We’re not going to leave our troops in harm’s way … without the resources they need,” said Hoyer, D-Md.

Hoyer was reluctant to say exactly what the bill will look like, but said he anticipates a minimum-wage increase will be part of it. He also said the bill should fund combat through Sept. 30 as Bush has requested, casting doubt that Democratic leaders would adopt a proposal by Rep. John Murtha, R-Pa., to fund the war two or three months at a time.

The president defended his argument that U.S. troops must remain in Iraq to help stabilize that country, even as he predicted that “casualties are likely to stay high.”

“If I didn’t think it was necessary for the security of our country, I wouldn’t put our kids in harm’s way,” Bush said.

There were few signs from lawmakers that they were willing to deal, either.

“The president wants a blank check. The Congress is not going to give it to him,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Democrats will work with the White House, she said, “but there is great distance between us right now.”

In his veto message to Congress, Bush said “the micromanagement in this legislation is unacceptable.” He also called the original bill unconstitutional for directing war operations “in a way that infringes upon the powers vested in the presidency.”

The situation has the Democratic caucus in a difficult position. Because Democrats control the House and Senate, the pressure is mainly on them to craft a bill that Bush will sign, and thus avoid accusations that they failed to finance troops in a time of war.

The party’s most liberal members, especially in the House, say they will vote against money for continuing the war if there’s no binding language on troop drawdowns. The bill Bush rejected would require the first U.S. combat troops to be withdrawn by Oct. 1 with a goal of a complete pullout six months later.

“I think the Democrats are in a box,” Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., said in an interview. “We’re pretty resolute on our side. We are not going to tie this funding to any type of withdrawal deadline or any type of redeployment deadline.”

Some Democrats believe the GOP solidarity will crack over time, noting that polls show heavy public support for a withdrawal plan.

Numerous possible compromises are being floated on Capitol Hill, all involving some combination of benchmarks. Some would require Bush to certify monthly that the Iraqi government is fully cooperating with U.S. efforts in several areas, such as giving troops the authority to pursue extremists. Others would require an Iraqi-run program to disarm militias and a plan to distribute oil revenues fairly among the various population groups.

The key impasse in Congress is whether to require redeployments of U.S. troops if the benchmarks are not met. Many Democrats insist on it, and many Republicans vow not to budge. It’s far from clear whether Bush would accept such an approach.

Under one proposal being floated, unmet benchmarks would cause some U.S. troops to be removed from especially violent regions such as Baghdad. They would redeploy to places in Iraq where they presumably could fight terrorists but avoid the worst centers of Sunni-Shia conflict.

Still another possibility would change the bill that Bush vetoed only by allowing the president to waive the redeployment requirements under certain conditions

A new spending bill “has got to be tied to redeployment,” said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., the House’s fourth-ranking Democratic leader. Emanuel conceded, however, that Democrats have yet to figure out where they will find the votes.

Said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky: “You’ve asked me if there is an area where there’s a potential common ground, and I think benchmarks are a possibility.”

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