Congress Pushes Bush to Accept Withdrawal Mandates

( LatWp ) - Congressional Democrats, emboldened by their successes in advancing timelines to end the war in Iraq, ratcheted up pressure Wednesday on the White House to accede to limits on America's military involvement.

``Take a deep breath, Mr. President,'' House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said as she urged President Bush to back away from threats to veto a war-funding bill that sets dates for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq.

``Calm down with the threats,'' Pelosi said. ``There's a new Congress in town. We respect your constitutional role. We want you to respect ours.''

The Senate, which has endorsed a plan that sets a ``goal'' of withdrawing U.S. forces by March 31, 2008, inched closer Wednesday to passing its $122 billion version of the spending bill.

Final passage is expected Thursday.

On Friday, the House passed a $124 billion war-spending bill that mandates a withdrawal no later than August 2008 and sooner if the Iraqi government does not meet a series of benchmarks.

Leaders of the two chambers will meet in coming weeks to reconcile the differences between the two plans. But as the Senate neared completion of the historic bill, Democrats trained their sights on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where the president continues to threaten to veto any legislation that limits what U.S. forces can do in Iraq.

In a speech Wednesday morning to cattle ranchers, the president again threatened a veto and warned Democrats they would be blamed for holding up essential funding for the troops.

``Members of Congress need to stop making political statements and start providing vital funds for our troops,'' the president said to enthusiastic applause.

``Now, some of them believe that by delaying funding for our troops, they can force me to accept restrictions on our commanders that I believe would make withdrawal and defeat more likely,'' Bush continued. ``That's not going to happen. If Congress fails to pass a bill to fund our troops on the front lines, the American people will know who to hold responsible.''

Previous presidents have won showdowns with Congress over foreign policy. A decade ago, President Clinton successfully turned aside a bid by congressional Republicans to force an end to U.S. military involvement in a peacekeeping mission in the Balkans.

But as this Congress prepares to send a bill to the president's desk next month, Democratic leaders appear to have settled on a strategy to try to isolate the White House by portraying Bush as the obstacle to a compromise that would bring the war to an end.

Over the past several days, Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other Democratic leaders have stressed their eagerness to work with the White House.

``Our phones are open any time of the day or night,'' Reid said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon with Pelosi. ``The ball is in his court. ... We hope that he will do what presidents have done for generations: Deal with a separate and independent branch of government. Sometimes they don't like to do it, but they recognize it's their obligation.''

Reid and Pelosi also sent a letter to the president challenging him to work with them. ``Rather than work with the Congress to develop a bill you could sign, you apparently intend to follow a political strategy that would needlessly delay funding for our troops,'' they wrote.

Pelosi and Reid face their own challenges as well.

As senior Democratic lawmakers work to craft a single war-funding bill from the House and Senate versions, they must find a formula that can hold together the coalitions they assembled to pass the timelines.

The timelines were approved in both chambers by two-vote margins.

That might be particularly challenging because the timelines in the House bill are considerably more aggressive than those in the Senate bill, which sets an earlier, but nonbinding, date for withdrawing U.S. forces.

Many anti-war lawmakers in the House agreed to back the bill last week only when they were assured by Pelosi and others that the timelines would remain firm. And several have said they would have a hard time supporting any legislation that weakens the timelines.

But Wednesday, Sen. Ben Nelson, a moderate Nebraska Democrat who provided key support in Tuesday's 50-48 vote endorsing the Senate's plan, said he couldn't support firm timelines.

``That's a problem,'' Nelson said. ``A hard and fast date sends the wrong message, and it is just unworkable.''

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