WASHINGTON -- President Bush and congressional leaders began negotiating a second war-funding bill yesterday, with Democrats offering the first major concession: an agreement to drop their demand for a timeline to bring troops home from Iraq.
Democrats backed off after the House failed, on a vote of 222 to 203, to override the president's veto of a $124 billion measure that would have required US forces to begin withdrawing as early as July. But party leaders made clear that the next bill will have to include language that influences war policy. Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, outlined a second bill that would step up Iraqi accountability, "transition" the US military role, and show "a reasonable way to end this war."
Said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: "We made our position clear. He made his position clear. Now it is time for us to try to work together. But make no mistake: Democrats are committed to ending this war."
Bush, who said he is confident an agreement can be reached, assigned three top aides to negotiate a new bill. White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten, national security adviser Stephen Hadley, and budget director Rob Portman will go to Capitol Hill today to speak with leaders of both parties.
But a new dynamic also is at work, with some Republicans now saying that funding further military operations in Iraq with no strings attached does not make practical or political sense.
"The hallway talk is very different from the podium talk," said Representative Bob Inglis, a South Carolina Republican who opposed the first funding bill.
While deadlines for troop withdrawals had to be dropped from the spending bill, such language is likely to appear in a defense policy bill that is expected to reach the House floor in two weeks, just when a second war-funding bill could be ready for a House vote. Democrats want the next funding bill to pass before Congress recesses May 25 for Memorial Day .
Beyond that, Democrats remain deeply divided over how far to give in to the White House.
House majority leader Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, indicated the next bill would include benchmarks to keep the Iraqi government on course, such as enacting a law to share oil revenue, quelling religious violence, and disarming sectarian militias. Failure to meet benchmarks could cost the Iraqi government billions of dollars in nonmilitary aid.
Benchmarks have emerged as the most likely foundation for bipartisan consensus and were part of yesterday's White House meeting, participants said.
"I believe the president is open to a discussion on benchmarks," said the Senate's Democratic whip, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, who attended the session. Just four Republicans supported the first version of the spending bill: Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon, Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Representative Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland, and Representative Walter B. Jones of North Carolina. But a growing number of GOP lawmakers want language that would hold the administration and the Iraqi government more accountable.
"The general sense is that the benchmarks are critical," said Senator Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican who opposed the original bill but supports some constraints.
White House officials are also looking to benchmarks as an area of compromise, but they want them to be tied to rewards for achievement, not penalties for failure.
Administration officials said that while they do not oppose benchmarks, they are sensitive about provoking Iraqis, who bristled last year when benchmarks crafted by US and Iraqi officials became public and made it appear as though Washington was dictating to Baghdad.
But that approach would be too weak even for moderates from both parties. Already, liberal Democrats contend that public opinion and circumstances in Iraq are on their side, and view benchmarks alone as far too weak. Representative David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, has repeatedly told Democratic leaders he would not report a war funding bill out of his committee that he could not personally support. Pelosi is also reluctant to embrace such a compromise until she sees how far congressional Republicans are willing to bend.
Democratic leaders have resigned themselves to losing many of the liberals they worked hard to bring on board the first bill. Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, said he would vote against the second version unless it includes a binding approach to ending the war.