With both chambers of Congress now on record as backing a pullout date in Iraq, President Bush's fight to buy more time for American combat forces to achieve US aims there falls to him alone.
The Senate vote Tuesday to set a target date of March 31, 2008, to end the war – and to begin redeploying US troops from Iraq within 120 days after the final bill is passed – surprised Republican leaders, who defeated similar language two weeks ago.
They could have blocked the Senate vote but decided it is more important to get a war-funding bill to Mr. Bush's desk, where it is sure to be vetoed. Then the real dealing begins, GOP leaders say, because Democrats will not risk depriving financial support to US troops in wartime.
Democrats say the Senate's new resolve changes the endgame for the war-funding bill and are calling on Bush to start, now, to work with the antiwar majority in Congress so that lawmakers can send to the White House a bill that he will sign. If not, they say, it's the president who will be blamed for failing to provide for troops in harm's way.
"All of this is on George Bush's door," says Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D) of Hawaii, chairman of the Air and Land Forces panel of the House Armed Services Committee. "If he wants to see the person responsible for not supporting the troops, he should look in the mirror."
The president, though, Wednesday renewed his pledge to veto a bill that he says has no chance of becoming law.
"The House and Senate bills have ... too many conditions on our commanders and an artificial timetable for withdrawal. And I have made it clear for weeks: If either version comes to my desk, I'm going to veto it," Bush said Wednesday during an appearance at a Washington meeting of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
He added: "It is also clear from the strong opposition in both houses that my veto would be sustained." The House measure calling for an exit timetable cleared by a six-vote margin. In the Senate, if just two votes had gone the other way, they would have tipped the outcome.
Some political observers suggest this moment may mark an important shift in how Bush works with Congress – and some see him likely to draw a line in sand in terms of willingness to yield to Congress's will on Iraq.
"The president is almost completely encircled, and his one avenue of escape is the veto," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "This may signal a period in his presidency when the veto becomes his principal communication with Congress."
The one point all sides agree on is the need to get funding to the Pentagon in the next few weeks. Citing comments by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Republicans say cutbacks will begin on April 15 if Congress does not act to supply funding. Democrats, also citing the Defense secretary, say the crunch date is May 1.
In a roundtable with reporters on March 22, Secretary Gates warned of "disruption to key programs." If the supplemental funding bill does not clear Congress by April 15, the Pentagon will be forced to consider moves ranging from slowing the training of units slated to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan to cutting funding for barracks renovation. If funds are not in the pipeline by May 15, Gates said, the tours of those serving in Iraq may have to be extended because other units are not ready to take their place.
House and Senate Democratic leaders met before Tuesday's Senate vote about how to get funds to the troops as quickly as possible. With the Senate out next week and the House for the next two weeks, the earliest a public conference could meet is mid-April, but lawmakers say private discussions are already under way.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid called on the president to "give us some ideas how we can satisfy the wishes of the majority of the Senate, the majority of the House and move forward and complete this bill as quickly as we con."
On Wednesday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky said the sooner lawmakers get a bill to Bush, prompting a veto, the sooner "we can get serious about passing a bill to get money to the troops."
Democrats are already talking about elements of a compromise, whether before or after a presidential veto. There's support in both parties for benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet. Some lawmakers float the idea that timelines could be set but not made public. "Timelines, whether they're public or private, we'll work that detail out," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D) of Illinois on Tuesday.
With a two-thirds majority required in both houses to overturn a veto, Bush can force another round of legislating on the war-funding bill. But the standoff risks alienating the public and jeopardizing what's left of Bush's legislative agenda.
"The Senate vote is an indication that the president is going to find it extremely difficult to build a bipartisan coalition in favor of his policies in Iraq," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
• Staff writer Gordon Lubold contributed to this report.