Talks on war funds begin

WASHINGTON – President Bush and congressional leaders began negotiating a second war funding bill Wednesday, 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 U.S. 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, D-Nev., outlined a second bill that would step up Iraqi accountability, “transition” the U.S. military role and show “a reasonable way to end this war.”

“We made our position clear. He made his position clear. Now it is time for us to try to work together,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said after a White House meeting. “But make no mistake: Democrats are committed to ending this war.”

Bush said he is “confident that we can reach agreement” and assigned three top aides to negotiate. White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten, national security adviser Stephen Hadley and budget director Rob Portman will go to Capitol Hill today to sit down 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. Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., a conservative who opposed the first funding bill, said “the hallway talk is very different from the podium talk.”

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 weekend.

Beyond that, Democrats remain deeply divided over how far to give in to the White House.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., indicated that the next bill would include benchmarks to keep the Iraqi government on course, such as passing 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, and the administration would be required to report to Congress every 30 days on the military and political situation in Iraq.

Benchmarks have emerged as the most likely foundation for bipartisan consensus and were part of Wednesday’s White House meeting, participants said. “I believe the president is open to a discussion on benchmarks,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, who attended the session. He added that no terms were discussed. “We didn’t go into any kind of detail,” Durbin said.


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