The White House today acknowledged public frustration with the Iraq war but tried to play down Republican anxieties as the House of Representatives prepared to pass legislation that could cut off funding for US troops as early as July.
The bill is hotly contested by the White House, opposed by nearly all Republicans and unlikely to survive in the Senate.
House Democratic leaders acknowledged the bill’s dim prospects but said the final version sent to the president will not be a blank check on the war.
“When we go to conference, there are certain principles: Supporting our troops, honouring our commitments to our veterans, holding the Iraqis accountable and strengthening our military,” said the leader of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The White House confirmed that Bush held an unannounced meeting this week with House Republican moderates who expressed deepening concerns about the war.
Several participants described a remarkably blunt discussion in which politicians told the president the war was unsustainable without public support, and was having a corrosive effect on Republican political fortunes.
Presidential spokesman Tony Snow refused to discuss details of the meeting but said, “Of course there are frustrations.”
“It is striking to me … that people are shocked that the president is hearing candid advice from people who have concerns.
“And I’m telling you that where the rubber meets the road, right now here in Washington, Republicans are united, Democrats are divided. Period.” Snow said, “If you want disunity, there’s far more disunity on the Democratic side.”
Today’s vote in the House comes as Iraqi MPs endorsed a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops and demanded a freeze on the number already in the country.
Drafted by the parliamentary bloc loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the proposal was signed by 144 members of the 275-member house, said Nassar al-Rubaie, the leader of the Sadrist bloc.
The House bill would provide the military with more than £20 billion to keep operations going through July, buy equipment and train Iraqi and Afghan security forces.
Congress would decide shortly before its August recess whether to release an additional €38bn for war spending through September.
The measure initially had been in jeopardy because many liberal Democrats thought the bill did not go far enough to end the war.
According to Democratic aides, these members agreed last night to swing behind the measure in exchange for a vote today on separate legislation that would require troop withdrawals to begin in three months.
While that measure is expected to fail, it will give liberal Democrats a chance to express their frustration with the war.
“We’re going to keep coming back until the votes are there,” said Rep James McGovern, a Democratic.
A dozen or so members in Congress are attempting to strike a bipartisan compromise on the war.
Few have come forward with concrete plans – perhaps out of reluctance to champion a proposal until they know it can succeed. None of the proposals put in plain view have picked up steam.
“We’ll see what happens,” said Rep. Bud Cramer, a Democrat. “A lot of us are coming together across the aisle. We’re under the radar now, but we’re meeting.”
Three Republicans – Reps. Frank Wolf, Michael McCaul and Mark Udall - circulated a letter Wednesday urging their colleagues to co-sponsor legislation that would put in place recommendations from the independent Iraq Study Group.
One of the 79 suggestions from the bipartisan group in December was reducing US “political, military or economic support” for Iraq if the Baghdad government could not make substantial progress toward providing for the country’s security. The report suggested an urgent diplomatic attempt to stabilise Iraq and allow the withdrawal of most US combat troops by early 2008.