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House, Senate face tough reconciliation

WASHINGTON – Before they can present President Bush with any timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq, Democrats in Congress face the daunting task of reconciling the Senate withdrawal plan passed Thursday with the one approved last week by the House.

The Senate’s timeline – part of the $123 billion war spending bill that passed 51-47, largely along party lines – requires the president to begin bringing troops home within 120 days of enactment and sets a nonbinding “goal” to have most combat forces out of Iraq by the end of next March.

The proposals have prompted repeated veto threats from President Bush, who said he will not sign legislation that limits what military commanders can do in Iraq. Democratic lawmakers are gearing up for a high-stakes showdown with the president.

The House plan mandates a far more restrictive timeline for drawing down U.S. forces, requiring the president to begin withdrawing troops as soon as July 1 and to complete the process no later than next March.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have played down the differences between their plans as they present a united front against the White House.

Thursday, Reid insisted the two Democrat-controlled chambers would have few problems reaching a compromise that could pass the House and Senate. “We don’t have a gap to overcome,” he said. “The ball is in the president’s court. That’s who has to make the next move.”

There were already signals of the potential complications that lie ahead, however.

Freshman Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. – a vehement war opponent who was among the last liberals to get behind the House measure last week – said Thursday he would actively work against any bill that did not retain the House’s firm timelines.

Under the House plan, the administration will have to certify on July 1 that the Iraqi government is making substantial progress in meeting a set of benchmarks to achieve political reconciliation and reduce sectarian violence. If the president cannot do that, he would have to withdraw most U.S. combat troops by the end of the year.

Even if the Iraqi government meets all the benchmarks, troop withdrawals must begin no later than March 1, 2008 and be completed by the end of that August, according to the House bill.

The absolute deadlines were key to winning the support of staunch anti-war lawmakers in the House, such as Ellison, many of whom have complained that Congress has not moved aggressively enough to end the war. Those lawmakers – who belong to the more than 80-strong Out of Iraq caucus – provided the final votes that guaranteed the 218-212 passage last week.

Those restrictive deadlines, however, could cause support to evaporate for the bill in the Senate.

Senate Democratic leaders united their caucus behind the spending bill passed Thursday by explicitly omitting a firm deadline for the final withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq.

Moderate Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, as well as Republicans Gordon Smith of Oregon and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, provided the margin of victory.

Nelson has said he could not support a bill that sets a firm deadline for withdrawing American forces.

The Bush administration, which has repeatedly accused Democrats of imperiling funding for troops by failing to quickly pass a bill that the president will sign, ramped up its counterattack Thursday.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters that the Army and the Marine Corps are being forced to shift funding around to buy armored vehicles for troops in Iraq.

And Bush, who met with Republican lawmakers at the White House on Thursday morning, reiterated his intention to veto any legislation that set limitations on military action.

“We stand united,” he said. “We expect there to be no strings on our commanders.”