Washington Democrats conceded Tuesday that their demands to begin withdrawing from Iraq can't be included in a war spending bill because President Bush would veto it, and they prepared to give him the money largely on his terms.
"The president has made it very clear he is not going to sign a timeline. We can't sign timelines over his veto. But the fact of the matter is I think we have moved this debate very substantially forward in terms of accountability and demanding a new direction in Iraq," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
Democrats are working under a self-imposed deadline to finish a war spending bill that Bush can sign this week - before the Memorial Day recess - in order to avoid holding up funds needed in combat zones and being bashed by Republicans over the holiday recess for not supporting the troops.
Bush vetoed a Democratic war spending bill May 1 that would have set Oct. 1 as the deadline for beginning withdrawal.
The general outlines of an agreement were in place Tuesday night, but details were still being worked out. The measure would provide about $96 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus a plan to require Iraq to meet 18 benchmarks for progress toward a representative government and an end to factional fighting. Bush could withhold nonmilitary aid if Iraq failed to meet the deadlines, or he could waive penalties.
The benchmarks include passing an oil bill that would divide revenues among all Iraqi ethnic groups and revising laws to provide for greater political participation by minority Sunni Muslim Iraqis.
The House also plans to vote on an amendment would add roughly $20 billion in nonwar domestic spending, including more than $6 billion for hurricane recovery and funds for health insurance for poor children, agricultural subsidies and increased funding for military and veterans' health care. The plan also would include the Democrats' plan to increase the minimum wage for the first time in 10 years.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he did not like the additional roughly $20 billion in nonwar spending Democrats wanted to add. But he said that if Bush gets the $96 billion he requested for the wars with no timelines for withdrawal attached, "my guess is that it will pass" even with extra spending.
Anti-war Democrats denounced the new plan.
The new proposal "does nothing to end this disastrous war," said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. "I cannot support a bill that contains nothing more than toothless benchmarks and that allows the president to continue what may be the greatest foreign policy blunder in our nation's history."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that the benchmark proposal was "extremely weak," but it wasn't "a blank check."
"It's still a lot more than the president ever expected, and he absolutely would have to agree to it," Reid said. The timeline had to be dropped, he said. "We don't have a veto-proof Congress."
Reid also said that Democrats will keep trying "to change direction in the war in Iraq" with other legislation in the weeks and months ahead.