US President George W. Bush sparred across the table with Democratic congressional leaders opposed to the Iraq war in a prelude to a veto showdown over a conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 3,200 US troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis.
During an hour-long meeting at the White House on Wednesday, the president told lawmakers directly he would not sign any bill that includes a timetable for withdrawing US forces and they made it clear Congress will send him one anyway.
"We believe he must search his soul, his conscience and find out what is the right thing for the American people," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters after the session. "I believe signing this bill will do that."
"It appears that they are determined to send a bill to the president that he won't accept. They fundamentally disagree," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.
Several officials said the session was polite. It turned pointed, however, when Reid, a Democrat, recounted a conversation with generals who likened Iraq to Vietnam and described it as a war in which the president refused to change course despite knowing victory was impossible. Bush bristled at the comparison, said several officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was private. One quoted him as saying "I reject" the comparison.
It was the first time Reid and Representative Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives of California, had met Bush to discuss the war since the House and Senate approved bills to provide money for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with conditions that he has vowed to reject.
Top Republican congressional leaders, who support Bush's position, also attended.
Democrats hope to complete work on a House-Senate compromise in time to send it to the White House by the end of next week, with Bush's veto a certainty.
The House-passed bill requires the withdrawal of combat troops by Sept. 1 next year. The Senate measure is weaker, requiring the beginning of a withdrawal within 120 days and setting a nonbinding goal of March next year for completion.
Given the narrow Democratic majority in the Senate, it appeared unlikely the compromise would include the mandatory date for a complete withdrawal, although several Democratic aides cautioned that Reid and Pelosi have yet to make a decision on that point.
At one time, said officials familiar with Wednesday's meeting, Democratic Representative Dick Durbin said Democrats had no intention of leaving the troops without money and noted that gives Bush enormous leverage to bend Congress to his will. He said he hoped some sort of accommodation could be worked out and gave the president an op-ed article making the case for requiring the Iraqi government to make political reforms.
Bush responded by saying he had invented so-called benchmarks for political reforms, one official said.
Several officials said the president and congressional leaders spent considerable time on the issue, which is expected to assume a central role in war funding legislation that Congress must pass after the president vetoes the first bill.
Republicans in Congress advocate the establishment of benchmarks but without a requirement for a troop withdrawal should the Iraqis fail to meet them.
Democrats tend to want to link continued US participation in the war to the ability of the Iraqi administration to create a fully democratic government, allocate oil resources and provide for its own security.
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