US president open to placing deadlines on Iraqi government

((((( LatWp LatWp) - President Bush signaled Thursday that he is open to legislation imposing consequences on the Iraqi government if it does not meet certain benchmarks for progress and expressed confidence that he can reach agreement soon with congressional Democrats on a war spending bill.

In response to reporters' questions, Bush twice declined to rule out penalizing the Iraqis for failing to achieve goals aimed at economic and political reconciliation, a concept advanced on Capitol Hill not just by Democrats, but by many Republicans too. White House aides privately have said such accountability measures are on the table in their negotiations with Congress.

``I accept and respect the members' desire to have benchmarks,'' Bush said. ``After all, I'm the person who laid them out initially. We will work through something we can all live with and enable us to get the job done.'' At three points during his remarks, Bush predicted he and Democratic leaders would be able to forge a settlement, and he praised House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nev., for vowing to cancel a Memorial Day recess if necessary. ``I'm confident we can get the job done,'' he said.

The president's comments came during a Rose Garden news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair drawing to a close their strong, six-year partnership as Blair prepares to step down. Alternately wistful and defensive, the two leaders from opposite ends of the political spectrum heaped praise on each other and offered no second thoughts on their mutual decision to launch a war that has cost them both politically.

``I've admired him as a president and I regard him as a friend,'' Blair said of Bush.

``I have enjoyed working with Tony Blair more than I could have possibly imagined,'' Bush replied.

Blair predicted Britain will remain an unflinching U.S. ally in Iraq and around the world under his successor, Gordon Brown, despite indications of cooler ties to come. Blair also vouched for Bush's suggestion that the coalition may be turning a corner in Iraq despite continued violence, pointing to what he called ``real and genuine signs of progress.'' And he offered a passionate defense of the need to fight for Iraqi democracy.

``We took a decision that we thought was very difficult,'' Blair said as antiwar protesters shouted outside the White House gates. ``I thought then, and I think now, it was the right decision. History will make a judgment at a particular time. But one thing I know is that what we represent coming here today, speaking in the Rose Garden to you people and getting your questions and being under your pressure, that is a finer and better way of life than either a brutal, secular dictatorship or religious extremism.''

Bush treated Blair to a final intimate visit before parting ways, dining alone on Wagyu beef in the White House on Wednesday night, then stepping out together onto the Truman Balcony for one last gaze at the Washington Monument. Blair spent the night in the Queen's Bedroom, where Winston Churchill stayed during World War II, and the two shared breakfast Thursday before conducting a Situation Room video conference with their generals and ambassadors in Iraq.

Their regret-free visit came as the Senate voted 94 to 1 Thursday to send a pro forma second version of the Iraq spending bill into final negotiations with the House. Those talks are scheduled to begin Friday in a meeting that will include party leaders from both chambers, along with White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten . Bolten also met with Senate leaders Thursday.

Bush is virtually certain to get the $95 billion he requested for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there also is a growing bipartisan consensus for compelling the Iraqi government to show substantive results in areas such as security and energy policy, while also introducing limited constraints on Bush's war authority, such as forcing him to report regularly on Iraq to Congress.

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