The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives failed to override President George Bush’s veto of an Iraqi war spending Bill with timetables for US troop withdrawals.
Yesterday’s 222-203 vote, far short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto, came just ahead of a White House meeting that Bush called to begin compromise talks with congressional leaders of both parties on new legislation to finance the war, now in its fifth year.
“The president has turned a tin ear to the wishes of the American people,” the leader of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said during the hour-long debate before the vote. “The president wants a blank cheque. The Congress will not give it to him.”
But Representative Jerry Lewis, a Republican, urged his colleagues to sustain the veto, saying politicians should not make military decisions.
“Now is not the time for the US to back down in its war on terror,” Lewis said.
Negotiations for a new spending Bill could prove difficult. Both parties agree it should include benchmarks for progress in Iraq, but many Democrats insist they be tied to timelines for US troop withdrawals if they are not met. Bush and his Republican congressional allies say such links are unacceptable.
Hours before the House vote sustained the veto, which Bush had issued on Tuesday, the president showed little appetite for compromise.
“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,” he said in a speech in Washington.
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.”
Pelosi had told reporters yesterday: “Benchmarks are important, but they have to have teeth in order to be effective.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said before the vote that he hoped to have a new Bill passed in the House in two weeks, with a final measure sent to the president before the end of the month.
“We’re not going to leave our troops in harm’s way … without the resources they need,” said Hoyer.
Hoyer would not speculate on exactly what the Bill might look like, but said he anticipated a minimum wage increase would be part of it.
He said the Bill should fund combat until September 30 as Bush has requested, casting doubt that Democratic leaders would adopt a proposal by Representative John Murtha, a Democrat, to fund the war two or three months at a time.
Republican leader John Boehner said Republicans were not taking any options off the table. But “what I want is a clean bill” without a timetable on the war, he said.
The situation has Democrats in a difficult position. Because they control the House and Senate, the pressure is mainly on them to craft a bill that Bush would 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 would vote against money for continuing the war if there was no binding language on troop reductions.
The Bill Bush rejected would require the first US combat troops to be withdrawn by October 1 with a goal of a complete pullout six months later.
“I think the Democrats are in a box,” Representative Eric Cantor, a Republican, said. “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 Republican 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 co-operating with US efforts in several areas, such as giving troops the authority to pursue extremists.
The key impasse in Congress is whether to require redeployments of US troops if the benchmarks are not met.