The Democrats controlling Congress could have rushed the emergency war-funding bill they just voted to the president's desk, where a presidential veto is all but inevitable.
Instead, they're waiting until May 1 – the four-year anniversary of President Bush's "mission accomplished" speech on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.
It's a signal of the drama about to unfold on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue as lawmakers and the White House figure out what to do after a veto. Increasingly, the most likely scenario looks like a high-stakes game of chicken where each side waits for the other to blink.
Mr. Bush says he wants a clean bill: no extra spending, no timetables or deadlines. Democrats, citing the 2006 elections, say they have a mandate to change direction in Iraq – and that the public will back them in a standoff with the White House over the war.
On Friday, the president invited lawmakers to the White House on May 2, after his veto, to discuss the "way forward." So far, neither side is disclosing negotiating points. But, in the run-up to an expected presidential veto, consensus is building around three approaches.
For Congress, three options on Iraq
One option, favored by nearly all Republicans and some moderate Democrats, is to agree to strip out deadlines for withdrawal but to still require that the president certify that his own benchmarks for progress in Iraq are being met. These include political reconciliation, a fair distribution of Iraqi oil revenues, and a stronger Iraqi role in improving the security situation on the ground.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, a key swing vote, says he voted for the supplemental bill, despite opposing deadlines for withdrawal, because he was certain that they would be negotiated out of the bill after a presidential veto.
"I favor the Senate bill, minus the deadlines," he said, on the eve of a return visit to Iraq last week.
Advocates for this view say they expect to find the votes to push through a deal.
"I'm quite optimistic that Congress will provide the necessary funds in a timely way for the troops," says Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He says he is developing a post-veto deal with centrists on both sides of the aisle.
"I have the elements in my pocket," he said, after the Senate voted 51-46 for the $124 billion emergency spending bill last Thursday.
Another option, favored by top House appropriators, is to pass a bill to fund the war for two months, and reevaluate after the president's "surge" is fully implemented. Bush administration officials say that a short-term fix doesn't give the Pentagon the flexibility it needs to prosecute the war.
A third option is to stand pat, pressuring the White House to yield or face a funding cutoff. This strategy could also force Republicans in Congress to vote for politically unpopular measures.
"The closer it gets to elections in 2008, the more focused the Republicans in the Senate will be on this issue," says Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, the deputy Democratic leader. "They have to decide if they want to take the president's position as their party position into the election."
For now, Democrats still support the view that the president should just sign the bill.
"It's a great bill. The president should read it and sign it," says Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania, who chairs the House panel that drafts defense spending bills. A longtime strong supporter of the military, his repudiation of his 2002 vote supporting the use of force in Iraq gave a congressional face to the antiwar movement.
Mr. Murtha and some other antiwar Democrats are eyeing the third option – that Congress opt to do nothing after a presidential veto and thus force a quick end to the war.
Bush has veto but needs funds
The president has the votes to sustain a veto on Capitol Hill, but that still leaves him without funding to prosecute his war, Murtha says.
"For some time, the assumption has been that eventually Democrats would have to go along with some kind of funding, absent timetables," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
"But it's possible that that isn't true, especially with reports that the administration is putting off its evaluation of the surge until September," he adds. "At some time, the public patience will run out."
The $124 billion spending bill, voted out of the House and Senate on near-partisan lines, sets deadlines that require the withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq to begin no later than Oct. 1 and to end by a target date of April 1, 2008. It also includes more than $20 billion in spending that the White House says is not needed.
In the recent past, presidents have typically won such standoffs with Capitol Hill. Despite strong public opposition to the war in Vietnam, Congress didn't impose limits on the president's conduct of the war until the very end of that conflict, after the president had already decided to end combat operations. When President Clinton stared down insurgent House Republicans over their proposed spending and tax cuts in 1995, the public blamed Congress for the government shutdown.
Democrats say that's less likely to happen to them, because while the public wanted government services that shut down when the government ran out of money in 1995, they do not want the Iraq war, and will be less likely to punish the party that pulls the plug on it.
"If the president vetoes the emergency spending bill, he's the one who will be denying our troops funding and he's the one who will be denying the American people a path out of Iraq," says Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a presidential candidate.
Just two months into the 2003 war in Iraq, the president announced that "major combat operations in Iraq had ended." At the time, nearly 3 in 4 Americans approved of how the president was handling the situation in Iraq.
Reversal of poll numbers on Iraq
Four years and more than 3,300 US combat deaths later, those approval ratings are exactly reversed: Nearly 3 in 4 Americans disapprove of the president's conduct of the war, according to a poll released last week by CBS/New York Times.
Asked who should have the final say about troop levels in Iraq, 57 percent say it should be Congress; only 35 percent say it should be the president, according to the same poll. But pressed to say whether Congress should continue withholding funding after a presidential veto until the president yields, only 36 percent supported that idea and 56 percent opposed it.
Those poll numbers are giving Democrats more confidence in the showdown with the president over funding.
Senate Democratic leaders say that the president can expect it to take most of the month of May to come up with an alternative funding bill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says a new bill could come sooner.
"Our goal is to try to achieve this in May, but starting a bill brand new is not easy," says Senator Durbin.
In the end, the outcome "depends on the facts on the ground," he adds. "I give the president the possibility that he's right and we're wrong. The war is what's driving the nation."