WASHINGTON - With President George W Bush
reiterating his threat to veto legislation that
makes funding for the Iraq war conditional on a
deadline for withdrawing at least some US troops,
Washington appeared on Wednesday to be moving
rapidly toward a major confrontation between the
White House and Democrats in Congress.
latter won a major victory on Tuesday when the
Senate voted 50-48 to reject an
administration-backed amendment that would have
stripped from a pending emergency
military-spending bill a
timetable for the withdrawal
of all combat troops by the end of March 2008.
The US$124 billion bill, which was
considered likely to pass late Wednesday or early
Thursday, must still be reconciled with a version
passed this week by the House of Representatives
that sets an August 31, 2008, deadline for
withdrawing all combat troops.
fact that both versions contain withdrawal dates
makes it virtually certain that the bill will go
to the White House with conditions that Bush has
said are unacceptable. Indeed, the president
repeated his veto threat during an appearance on
Wednesday before a convention of the National
Cattlemen's Beef Association in Washington.
"If either version of the bill comes to my
desk, I am going to veto it," he declared. "Here's
the bottom line: the House and Senate bills have
too much pork, too many conditions on our
[military] commanders, and an artificial timetable
for withdrawal," he said, warning that current
funding for US forces will begin running out in
mid-April unless supplemental funding is approved.
"Members of Congress need to stop making
political statements and start providing vital
funds for our troops," he said. "They need to get
that bill to my desk so I can sign it into law."
While Bush's words bespoke confidence that
he can win the looming confrontation and force
Democrats to delete references to a withdrawal
deadline, his political position is widely seen as
continuing to erode.
scandals have spurred congressional investigations
that have put the White House into an increasingly
defensive crouch and prompted even some loyal
Republican lawmakers to distance themselves
publicly from the administration.
Particularly damaging have been
disclosures surrounding last year's firing of
eight federal prosecutors. Democrats say they were
let go for being insufficiently protective of
Republican interests. The scandal may soon cost
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, a longtime Bush
crony, his job and force Bush's top political
aide, Karl Rove, to testify before Congress on his
role in the firings.
"In half a century, I
have not seen a president so isolated from his own
party in Congress - not Jimmy Carter, not even
Richard Nixon as he faced impeachment," wrote
veteran conservative columnist Robert Novak this
That assessment was echoed by an
astonishing "Insiders Poll" of 84 key Republican
activists and organizers conducted last week by
the influential National Journal. A whopping 84%
of respondents described the Bush administration
as a net "liability" for the party; more than half
said it was a "major liability".
latest scandals undoubtedly weighed heavily in
their assessment, Bush's handling of the war -
most recently, his determination to add as many as
35,000 troops to the 135,000 who were deployed to
Iraq as of mid-January - remains the single
biggest drag on both his approval rating and
future Republican political prospects, according
to most analysts.
A major public opinion
survey released this week by the Pew Research
Center found that nearly six in 10 respondents
(59%), including 34% of self-described
Republicans, want their congressional
representatives to support legislation that
requires the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq no
later than August 2008.
The same survey
found that a majority of self-described Democrats
and a strong plurality of independents also
believed that Congress should assert greater
control over US policy in Iraq. The vehicle
for asserting that control has been the
administration's request for nearly $100 billion
in its emergency 2007 supplemental defense
appropriations bill to maintain funding for US
military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and
elsewhere in the "war on terror".
Democrats had already decided in January -
after Bush rejected recommendations by the
bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) and announced
his "surge" of additional troops into Baghdad and
al-Anbar province - that they would try to force
Bush to change course in Iraq by imposing
conditions on the supplemental bill.
effort was formally launched last week when the
House of Representatives voted 218-212 to impose
the August 2008 deadline for the withdrawal of all
The vote, a major test of
the new Democratic leadership's ability to impose
discipline on left-wingers who pressed for a much
earlier withdrawal date and conservatives fearful
of being charged by Republicans with "not
supporting our troops", was characterized as
"hugely significant" by Washington Post columnist
E J Dionne, who wrote that it "confirmed that
power in Washington has indeed shifted".
Tuesday's Senate vote appeared to confirm
Dionne's assessment. Just two weeks ago, the
Senate rejected a resolution that called for a
withdrawal by the end of next March in a 50-48
vote when three Democrats crossed the aisle, while
all but one Republican remained united in
But on Tuesday, the two
senators from the conservative Midwestern state of
Nebraska - Democrat Ben Nelson and Republican
Chuck Hagel - supported the withdrawal measure.
Hagel, who is believed to considering a
presidential bid, was particularly outspoken
during the debate, calling Bush's "surge" a
"flawed and failing policy".
House bill, the Senate version is technically
non-binding in that it sets March 31, 2008 (the
same date recommended by the bipartisan ISG), as
the "goal" for completing the withdrawal of combat
troops, rather than as a fixed deadline. It also
calls for withdrawal to begin no later than 120
days from the date that the bill becomes law.
The fact that majorities, however slender,
in both houses of Congress have now voted for a
timeline for withdrawal marks a major turning
point in Iraq policy, according to many analysts.
"This is the first time that Congress has stood up
and said, 'We're not going to write blank checks
for the war in Iraq,'" said Jim Cason of the
Friends Committee on National Legislation, a
Quaker lobby group.
Still, Cason and
others believe that the battle over control of
Iraq policy will be long and difficult.
"This is not one battle; it's a long-term
campaign," said Democratic Senator Charles Schumer
on Tuesday. "Every time we have a vote like this,
it ratchets up the pressure on the president and
on many of those in his party."