March 8, 2007 -- The days of symbolic, nonbinding resolutions behind them, Democratic leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate Thursday dug in their heels and set the stage for an aggressive debate over the future of the war in Iraq and for a showdown with the White House, which pledged to veto such efforts.
At a morning press conference, House speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., and House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee Chairman Jack Murtha, D-Pa., introduced the $96 billion in supplemental spending for the Iraq War with major strings attached.
These include, most notably, that the Iraqi government meet President Bush's benchmarks for reform under penalty of immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, as well as a timeline regardless of benchmarks met for ending all U.S. troop deployment in Iraq.
"No matter what," Pelosi said, "by March 2008, redeployment begins." And by August 2008, it will be completed, according to this bill.
"The proposal that we are talking about today will essentially redirect more resources to the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan," said Obey, "fighting the right war in the right place."
The House bill would also require that the Bush administration meet Pentagon standards for troop readiness in terms of unit readiness, length of time they can be deployed in Iraq, and length of time they can stay at home before they are sent back to Iraq. Pelosi's bill, however, grants Bush the authority to depart from Pentagon guidelines if he provides a report explaining why.
The president has long anticipated such a move, and speaking to the American Legion earlier in the week, fired a warning shot. "I ask the Congress to approve the funds we requested and our troops are counting on without strings and without delay," Bush said to applause. "Equally important to funding our troops is giving our commanders the flexibility to carry out their missions, without undue interference from politicians in Washington."
Today, flying to Brazil, the president did not even wait for his plane to land to threaten a rare use of his veto pen. "What we're seeing here is an artificial, precipitous withdrawal from Iraq based on, unfortunately, politics in Washington, not on conditions on the ground in Baghdad, Iraq," said White House counselor Dan Bartlett, calling the Pelosi bill "a nonstarter."
Poking fun at the various proposals Democrats have made about Iraq, Bartlett quipped that "one of the few benefits of the 24-hour news cycle, seven days a week, is you can keep up, actually, with the position of the Democrats."
Perhaps at least partly because of the House move, Senate Democrats convened a press conference in the afternoon announcing legislation that would begin the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq within 120 days of enactment, with a goal of all U.S. combat forces out of Iraq by March 2008.
"The question becomes whether we'll continue to follow the president's failed strategy or whether we work to change course," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., standing with a phalanx of Democrats that included liberal Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and moderate Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind. "Will the Senate sit silent or will we bring stability to Iraq and bring our troops home from a protracted civil war?"
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., added, "This resolution does what the voters asked us to do," including "a change in strategy away from patrolling a civil war toward simply focusing on counterterrorism" and "to greatly reduce the number of troops in Iraq."
Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have had trouble getting their members -- which range from far-left anti-war liberals to conservative Democrats from states Bush won handily in 2004 -- to coalesce around one plan. And Thursday morning, House Democratic leaders seemed unclear of all the deadline details of the bill they were introducing.
Nonetheless, this is the first real effort of the new Democratic Congress to end U.S. involvement in the war in Iraq, but it will be an ugly and complicated fight.
Pelosi already faces opposition from within her own party. The House Out of Iraq and progressive caucuses pre-empted their speaker's press conference with a news conference of their own in which they said the Pelosi bill does not go far enough; they want all U.S. troops out of Iraq by Dec. 31, 2007.
"Four-and-a-half years ago, the president asked Congress to give war a chance. And despite our objections, he got that chance and he blew it," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. "No more chances. No more waivers. No phony certification. No more spending billions of dollars to send our children into the meat grinder that is Iraq."
Pelosi said she believed the Out of Iraq caucus would eventually join her efforts. "This bill sets a date certain here for the first time for the redeployment of troops out of Iraq," she said.
Pelosi also faces pressure from the right, the Republicans, who have vowed to keep their party united against the bill. "This is not a typical Washington food fight that we're in," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, Thursday. "The debate we're engaged in is about the long-term security of our country and next generation of Americans.
"The Democrats' latest plan is a twist on the old adage: It's failure at any cost," Boehner said, arguing that the GOP would have no compunctions about voting against a troop funding bill. "The Democrats are using a critical troop-funding bill to micromanage a war. It undermines the generals on the ground and slowly chokes off resources for our troops by establishing benchmarks and telegraphing our plan to the enemy."
Boehner said the "arbitrary timelines are little more than a roadmap to terrorists, a tool they'll use." He expressed confidence that Republicans would be able to defeat the Pelosi bill.
On the Senate side, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pooh-poohed his rivals' efforts, knowing full well that one needs the tough-to-reach 60 votes to accomplish anything in the Senate. He said that "Democrats in the Senate, at latest count, have 16 different versions or various proposals to interfere with the president's ability -- or Gen. [David] Petraeus's ability, more importantly -- to conduct this mission successfully."
The Pelosi bill -- titled the U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans' Health and Iraq Accountability Act -- requires the president to certify progress by the Iraqi government by July 1, 2007, in various reforms, including (a) a militia disarmament program, and (b) an equitable oil revenue sharing program among Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis.
If the president fails to certify such progress, the legislation would require that U.S. troops begin immediate withdrawal, with complete withdrawal by December 2007.
The president would then have until Oct. 1, 2007, to certify that Iraqis have achieved (not just begun progress, as with March 1) key benchmarks. If he fails to make that second certification, U.S. troops must begin immediate withdrawal to be completed by March 2008.
Either way, withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq must begin by March 1, 2008, to be completed by August 2008.
The bill would also:
expand funding for veterans' health care and hospitals by at least $3.5 billion
add $1.4 billion for troop housing
refocus military efforts on Afghanistan with an additional $1.2 billion
fund other homeland security projects
On Thursday, Boehner implied that this debate amounted to little more than partisan games. The minority leader told reporters that he had attended a briefing from Petraeus, commander of the multinational force in Iraq, via satellite in the morning.
"I have to note not a single member of the Democratic leadership was there from the House, even though they were invited," Boehner said. He called this "unfortunate but telling," since Democrats are "too focused on internal party politics and partisan politics of 2007."
Petraeus should be making decisions about troops, Boehner said, "not speaker Pelosi or Congressman Murtha."
Dean Norland, John Parkinson and Avery Miller contributed to this report.