Washington Democrats controlling Congress sent the most explicit signals yet on Thursday that they are resigned to providing additional funding for the war in Iraq before Congress adjourns for the year.
Conceding that President Bush is in a strong position as Congress seeks to wrap up its work, Democrats are cooking up a pre-Christmas endgame that would deliver tens of billions of dollars for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan on conditions acceptable to the White House.
The Iraq funding would ultimately be attached by Bush's Senate GOP allies to a $500 billion-plus "omnibus" appropriations bill taking shape in closed-door talks. That's the only way they would let the measure go through the Senate.
House Democratic leaders, though hardly enthusiastic about the idea, recognize it is the only way for Democrats to have a chance to wrap up their long-unfinished budget work and adjourn before Christmas.
"I anticipate at some point in time that will be the case," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., when asked if Congress would ultimately vote on Iraq funding without a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops.
Hoyer acknowledged Democrats are considering a legislative two-step in which the House would initially pass the catch-all spending bill next week without Iraq funding attached. But the Senate would add the money - as the only way to avoid a GOP filibuster - and House Democrats would reluctantly accept it.
Such a solution would prevent weeks of Democrat-bashing by Bush for failing to provide additional money for U.S. troops in harm's way in Iraq.
Under a bill that Democrats passed through the House last month, Bush would get $50 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan operations, but only if he agrees to strings such as setting a Dec. 15, 2008 target date for withdrawing combat forces. Bush has sought a total of $196 billion for the budget year that began Oct. 1, but Republicans are resigned to winning far less now; a recent Senate GOP plan was for a $70 billion infusion.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would not concede Thursday that Democrats would go along with new Iraq money. She instead suggested that Democrats would provide additional money for Afghanistan operations and some domestic military requirements.
Perhaps $30 billion is at issue, but under Pentagon accounting rules, some of the funds could be used to support Iraq troop deployments, with the aim of easing financial strains at the Pentagon that threaten civilian Pentagon contractors with pre-Christmas warnings of February layoffs.
Hoyer's concession came in a Thursday afternoon floor exchange with GOP Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri. House Republicans, led by Blunt and Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, are urging the president to take a hard line in his dealings with Democrats over Iraq and the remaining budget bills.
GOP leaders promise that Republicans will sustain any veto of a Democratic spending bill, and they came away from a White House meeting Tuesday optimistic that Bush would stick to his position.
"I am confident that the president is going to . . . hold the line on spending and hold it firm," Boehner said.
"This is the spending fight we've anticipated all year," Blunt said. "There's no reason to lay down a winning hand."
In the Senate, leaders in both parties are trying for a deal on a catch-all measure that would allow both sides to claim victory. Bush's chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, met Wednesday with top congressional leaders, including Hoyer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.