Washington Senate Democratic leaders said Sunday they will keep pushing for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq even if President Bush vetoes legislation calling for a pullout.
Meanwhile, the Senate's top Republican leader dismissed as unacceptable any legislation that sets deadlines for a troop withdrawal. He called on Democrats to cut short their Easter recess so lawmakers can quickly send a final version to Bush for a veto.
"This bill is not salvageable," said Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell.
The comments were the latest in a war of words over funding and the future course in Iraq as Congress lurched closer to an epic veto confrontation with the president.
"The president as well as his staff are more than willing to sit down and talk to congressional leaders," White House counselor Dan Bartlett said Sunday. "But what we haven't seen from this Democratic leadership is a willingness to drop this very restrictive language that basically substitutes the judgment of politicians here in Washington with the judgment of our commanders on the ground."
The Democratic-controlled House and Senate passed measures last month that would provide more than $90 billion to sustain military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, while setting conditions for an eventual withdrawal of troops.
The Senate bill would require the beginning of a troop exit within 120 days, with a nonbinding goal of March 31, 2008, for its completion. The House version is more sweeping, mandating that nearly all combat troops pull out by Sept. 1, 2008.
Bush has said he would veto any funding legislation with timelines, saying imposition of a "specific and random date of withdrawal would be disastrous" for U.S. troops in Iraq. Before Bush can act, House and Senate negotiators must put together a compromise bill.
The Senate is in recess for one week, but the House does not return until April 16. Even if a tentative deal is reached by then, getting it through the House and Senate and to the president would take at least a week.
On Sunday, Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democratic leader in the Senate, and Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, did not say whether House Democrats should come back early.
But they said lawmakers had some time to maneuver with either a compromise bill or a new measure that sets "target dates" for withdrawal, citing a nonpartisan Congressional Research Service report that indicates the Army has enough bookkeeping flexibility to pay for war operations until July.
Lawmakers and Capitol Hill staff aides view mid- to late May as the deadline for completing the war spending bill to avoid hardships.
"I think we'll end up doing what the Senate did, not what the House did, set a target date," said Biden. "You've got to change the mission to get a political solution. That's what we're saying."
"The memo is not to the enemy. The memo is to the president: Mr. President, get straight on this war," he said. "Get us out of the middle of a civil war."
Durbin insisted Democrats in the House and Senate will work out a compromise despite differences in the proposals about calling U.S. troops home. The final legislation, he said, will start winding the war down.
"If you follow this escalation of the war by President Bush, you can understand that there is no end in sight," Durbin said.
Democratic Sen. Barack Obama predicted that if Bush vetoes the withdrawal legislation, Congress will quickly approve funding for the war because it won't "play chicken with the troops."
He suggested that Congress' only recourse is to mount public pressure in hopes of building a two-thirds majority that could override a presidential veto.