US House leaders agree to fund Iraq war without timetables

The House is expected to approve a measure Thursday that fully funds the president's $96 billion request but does not set a deadline for troop withdrawal.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The 108-day standoff between Congress and President Bush over war funding is poised to come to an end.

A measure expected to be approved by the House Thursday fully funds the president's $96 billion request for fiscal year 2007, with new reporting requirements, but not the deadline for withdrawal of US forces that Mr. Bush says he would veto.

A second measure adds about $20 billion in domestic spending to the war-funding package. It includes money for veterans' healthcare, children's healthcare, Katrina recovery, and a minimum wage increase.

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It will mean that House Democratic leaders will have met their own Memorial Day deadline for funding the troops, without requiring their members to take a high-profile vote on the combined war-funding package.

"It's a brilliant way to go forward," said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, after a meeting with the House Democratic caucus to explain the bill on Tuesday.

At the briefing on his plan, Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said, "That is the fastest way that we know of to resolve the difference and to still recognize the right of people in the House to exercise their opinion and vote any way they choose on both packages."

Democrats say they expect that the war-funding piece of the package will pass with Republican votes.

But the move set off a firestorm within the Democrats' antiwar base.

"It's a complete capitulation to a failed president and a failed policy," says Tom Andrews, national director of Win Without War.

Other antiwar groups, such as MoveOn.org, say they are considering "all options" against Democrats who vote "a blank check for an endless war," including advertising and recruiting primary challengers in key districts.

"With the kind of mandate that the Democrats have from the public, there shouldn't be a cent more given to this war without timetables or teeth to end it," says Eli Pariser, the executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action.

"And we'll work hard so that Republicans who refuse to listen to the country on Iraq face a great political backlash in their home districts," he adds.

In response, House Democrats say that they had no choice but to let the war-funding bill go forward. While votes to require a timetable for the withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq have been on the rise, they are still short of a majority in both the Senate and the House – and well short of a veto-proof majority.

Earlier this month 171 House members backed a bill by Rep. James McGovern (D) of Massachusetts to start a withdrawal within 90 days of enactment. Last week, only 29 senators backed an amendment by Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin to require a withdrawal by March 31, 2008.

"The president doesn't need to pay attention to any of this stuff. But the Senate is not where we are," says Representative McGovern, adding he will vote against the war-funding measure.

Other antiwar Democrats say that given the votes they had no choice but to allow a measure to go through. "It's a concession to reality," says Rep. James Moran (D) of Virginia.

"The first measure [to fund the war] will pass with Republicans and some Democrats; the second measure will be all Democrats and some Republicans," he adds. "But there's still no commitment for the president to do anything.

On the Senate side, three Iraq-related votes on a water bill last week set the parameters of a compromise. By a vote of 87 to 9, the Senate backed an amendment by Sen. Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi expressing a sense in the Senate that Congress should send a supplemental spending bill for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to the president by May 28.

In a separate vote, 52 senators backed an amendment by Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia that would have withheld economic aid funding for Iraq if the Iraqi government did not meet political and security benchmarks. The Warner language is now part of the compromise war-funding bill, which requires the president to report to the Congress in July and September on the Iraqi government's progress in meeting 18 benchmarks, but also includes a waiver that Bush can sign.

In a floor speech opposing the amendment, Senate majority leader Harry Reid called the benchmarks "weak, weak, weak." But in a press briefing after a Senate Democratic caucus meeting on Tuesday, Senator Reid struck a more conciliatory tone.

He said that the Senate hopes to complete the war-funding request by Thursday night or Friday, but that the Senate would "continue focusing every day on the need to change direction in Iraq."

"This is the seventh supplemental appropriation bill that the president's sent us," [and] ... "it'll be the first supplemental that he has that he hasn't been given a blank check," he added.

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