Wed, Apr 04, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Bush, Congress fight for upper hand


US President George W. Bush and Congress are wrestling for the upper hand on the Iraq war debate, with neither side willing to back down and a top Democrat saying for the first time he wants to stop money for combat.

Bush was expected to speak yesterday to reporters at the White House on Iraq war funding a day after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced he would try to eliminate funding for the war if Bush rejects Congress' proposal to set a deadline to end combat.

The House and Senate are preparing to send Bush a bill by the end of the month that would approve of some US$96 billion in new money for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also set an end date to combat in Iraq. Bush has promised to veto the legislation.

If Bush "continues to resist changing course in Iraq, I will work to ensure this legislation receives a vote in the Senate in the next work period," Reid said in a statement on Monday. The Senate is in recess for one week.

Reid's proposal would be the most extreme measure to be considered by Democrats to try to force Bush's hand on the war. It is also a divisive one.

Most Republicans and many conservative Democratic senators, including Ben Nelson of Nebraska, have been reluctant to embrace a timetable in Iraq. Nelson agreed last week to swing behind the Senate spending bill, which calls for troops to leave by March 31, next year, only because the date was nonbinding and not a firm deadline.

Nelson also agreed to vote for the measure because Reid added language Nelson wanted outlining steps the Iraqi government should take to improve stability in Iraq.

Senators Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon Smith of Oregon were the only Republicans who supported the measure.

Reid's promise marks a new shift in strategy for Democrats. Reid was previously reluctant to embrace the suggestion of using Congress' power of the purse and deflected questions on the matter by saying Democrats would provide troops with what they need to be safe.

His latest proposal would give the president one year to get troops out, ending funding for combat operations after March 31, next year, and allowing troops to conduct only counterterrorism operations, train Iraqi forces and provide security for US infrastructure and personnel.

This latest challenge indicates Reid is likely both frustrated by Bush's stubborn insistence on the war and his own shaky majority in Congress. Unable to override a presidential veto because he lacks the necessary two-thirds majority support, Reid is trying to increase the pressure on Bush in the hopes he will cave.

While Bush has remained steadfast in his insistence to keep US troops inside Iraq in large numbers, he does so without the blessing of voters. Six in 10 Americans say they favor a timetable to remove all troops within six months, and the number grows to 71 percent if all troops are removed within two years, according to a recent poll.

But threatening to cut off money for the troops makes Democrats a target for criticisms that they have turned their backs on the military -- a charge administration officials and Vice President Dick Cheney made on Monday.

"Standing with the troops means getting them the money that they need now," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

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