Washington Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Monday he wants to cut off money for the Iraq war next year, making clear for the first time that Democrats are willing to pull out all the stops to end U.S. involvement.
Reid's new strategy faces an uphill battle because many of his colleagues see yanking funds as a dangerous last resort. The proposal increases the stakes on the debate and marks a new era for the Democratic leadership once reluctant to talk about Congress' power of the purse.
"In the face of the administration's stubborn unwillingness to change course, the Senate has no choice but to force a change of course," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who signed on Monday as a co-sponsor of Reid's proposal with Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.
The move is likely to intensify the Democrats' rift with the administration, which already contends Democrats are putting troops at risk by setting deadlines.
"It's time the self-appointed strategists on Capitol Hill understood a very simple concept: You cannot win a war if you tell the enemy you're going to quit," Vice President Dick Cheney said Monday at a fundraising luncheon for Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
Also Monday, President Bush conferred by secure videoconference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on the pace of a nearly seven-week-old security crackdown. Extra troops from both countries are aiming to calm Baghdad and troubled Anbar Province, and some initial improvement has been reported.
Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for Bush's National Security Council, said the leaders agreed that the effort "must be carried out until lasting success can be achieved." Al-Maliki repeated his promise to pass legislation seen as key to moving Sunnis and Shiites from battling each other to political compromise.
In recent weeks, the House and Senate voted separately to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but set an end date for combat in Iraq. The House proposal orders all combat troops out of Iraq as of Aug. 31, 2008, whereas the Senate orders some troops to leave right away with the nonbinding goal of ending combat by March 31, 2008.
The House and Senate are working on a final proposal that can be sent to the president by the end of the month.
Bush has said several times he would veto the measure, and Republicans say they'll back him. On Monday, 154 House Republicans sent Bush a letter promising to stick with him in opposition to the legislation.
Mindful that they hold a shaky majority in Congress and that neither chamber has enough votes to override a presidential veto, Democrats are already thinking about the next step after Bush rejects their legislation.
Reid said Monday that if that happens, he will join forces with Feingold, one of the party's most liberal members who has long called to end the war by denying funding for it.
Reid has previously stopped short of embracing Feingold's position. When asked whether he would ever consider pulling funds for the troops, Reid said Congress would provide troops what they needed to be safe.
Reid's latest proposal would give the president one year to get troops out, ending funding for combat operations after March 31, 2008.
"If the president vetoes the supplemental appropriations bill and continues to resist changing course in Iraq, I will work to ensure this legislation receives a vote in the Senate in the next work period," Reid said in a statement.