( LatWp ) - House Democrats declared that they will vote on an Iraq spending bill that could cut funding for the war as early as July, defying a threat from President Bush that he would veto the proposal.
Even Senate Democrats called the House proposal, scheduled for a vote Thursday, unrealistic. Senate leaders met with White House officials Wednesday to try to find a bipartisan option to fund the war through the summer. But there appeared to be little progress in those negotiations, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned lawmakers that the debate is beginning to delay Pentagon operations.
The one area of agreement seemed to be that U.S. officials want the Iraqi government to better contain violence there. Vice President Dick Cheney made an unannounced trip to Baghdad Wednesday to meet with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other officials. He urged them to help end fighting between rival Sunni and Shiite factions, to make progress on revising their constitution and to better manage their oil revenue.
Cheney also expressed concern about the Iraqi parliament considering a two-month summer vacation. That has angered members of Congress and other American officials who say it shows a lack of concern for the commitment of U.S. troops.
The House proposal would extend war spending through July, rather than September as Bush has requested. White House spokesman Tony Snow said the president would veto the bill because of its spending restrictions.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said: ``Our bill will fully fund the troops, honor our commitment to our veterans, hold the Iraqi government accountable and end the war.''
The House bill would divide war funding into two installments. The first $43 billion would be released immediately, with new standards for resting, training and equipping troops and a slate of benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet. Bush would be required to submit to Congress by July 13 three reports measuring Iraqi progress on those benchmarks, which of the goals had been met and how many Iraqi combat units are ready to operate on their own. About 10 days later, the House would vote again, first on whether to cut off funding for further combat in Iraq, then on releasing the remaining $53 billion.
But Senate Democrats view that two-month time frame as unrealistic. ``It puts the troops on a very short leash in terms of funding, and I don't think we should do that,'' said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan. After meeting with White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said: ``They have to do what they have to do.'' Reid said he would wait until after the House vote before deciding on Senate language.
One concern is that the conflicting House and Senate approaches could jeopardize Democrats' goal of delivering a final package to Bush before the Memorial Day recess. Democrats are eager to avoid political pitfalls that could occur if troop funding begins to run out.
Gates told the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday that the drawn-out debate over the bill is already forcing the Pentagon to curtail contracts and hiring and to stop funding some programs in order to sustain troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
``We could probably fund the war into July, but I would tell you, the impact on the Department of Defense in terms of disruption and canceled contracts and programs would be huge if we had to do that,'' Gates told the panel.
If the funding was not approved in July, Gates said he would have to ``shut down significant elements of the Department of Defense in August and September because I wouldn't have the money to pay salaries.'' The House's plan for partial funding is impractical, he added. ``The bill asks me to run the Department of Defense like a skiff, and I'm trying to drive the biggest supertanker in the world.''
In the Senate, Reid -- who has co-sponsored a bill that would end the war within a year -- is seeking to avoid a Republican filibuster by negotiating with McConnell and the White House. Senate aides who were briefed on the meeting Wednesday morning said Bolten has offered only a bare outline of what the White House is willing to accept, basically benchmarks without tough consequences for the Iraqis. Even many Republican lawmakers who have supported the war want to go further than that.
One idea, favored by some senior Senate Democrats, would link benchmarks to a continued U.S. military commitment, requiring Bush to meet strict reporting requirements and to seek waivers for continued U.S. operations, if the Iraqis fall short.
Another proposal, popular with moderate Republicans, would withhold reconstruction aid if the Iraqi government fails to show progress. A third, announced Wednesday by Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Evan Bayh, D-Ind., would reduce U.S. forces to pre-escalation levels if the benchmarks are not met.
Gates said the duration of the U.S. troop increase in Iraq would depend in part on an assessment of the strategy expected in early September from Gen. David Petraeus, the senior commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
``We're going to be looking for the direction of events,'' he said. ``I think if we see some very positive progress and it looks like things are headed in the right direction, then that's the point at which I think we can begin to consider reducing some of these forces.''