US Democrats on Tuesday shelved their crusade to condition Iraq war funding on troop withdrawals, but denied handing US President George W. Bush a multibillion dollar victory.
Instead of homecoming soldiers, party leaders reluctantly accepted the first congressionally approved political and security benchmarks for the Iraqi government, a plan ridiculed just last week by a top Democrat as "weak."
They vowed to renew their battle to end US involvement in the war through defense bills looming in the next few months and claimed their weeks-long constitutional showdown had boxed Bush in as never before.
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi presented the outline of the new funding bill, worth around US$100 billion, to her restive party caucus on Tuesday, billing it as "another stage in the sequencing of ending this war."
Pelosi said September was now the real "moment of truth for this war" as several spending bills come up as well as a report on the progress of Bush's troop surge strategy by top war general, David Petraeus.
Some top Republicans have already said they will either need to see progress by then, or sweeping changes in US strategy in the war, which has killed more than 3,400 US soldiers.
Bush has vowed never to accept timelines for withdrawal, billed by Republicans as "surrender dates" and vetoed a previous US$124 billion spending bill because it included such mechanisms.
Bush was expected yesterday to present newly declassified intelligence charging that al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden told the group's late leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to plan terror strikes on the US.
The bin Laden-Zarqawi link was made in secret documents that were declassified on Tuesday and shored up Washington's argument that it is fighting in Iraq to prevent the country from becoming a new "sanctuary" for al-Qaeda.
The House was to vote, probably today, on a war funding package and companion legislation containing extra domestic spending and including hurricane relief funding and other spending hikes, included to placate liberal Democrats.
The Senate would then be asked to vote on the package as a whole, said Democratic Representative David Obey, who has been locked in talks with Republicans, top senators and the White House on the funding package.
Democrats, who control both chambers of Congress but lack sufficient votes to override a presidential veto, dismissed the notion that their reluctant dropping of withdrawal timelines handed Bush a hard-won victory.
"I don't think there's any way you could stretch, saying whatever we decide to do in this legislation is a defeat," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.
"For heaven's sakes, look where we've come. We have come a long, long ways," he said.
Leaders said the budget language would mirror a Republican-backed amendment passed last week and accepted by the White House, which would require Bush to report to Congress on progress in Iraq next month and September.
The bill, framed by Republican Senator John Warner, also raises the prospect of the Iraqi government forfeiting non-military financial aid if it fails to reach a set of political and security benchmarks.
Though Reid ridiculed the bill last week as "weak," he said it would mark an important step toward ending the war.
"If that's all there is, it's a lot more than the president ever expected he'd have to agree to," Reid said.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell meanwhile said the chamber appeared ready to pass a bill "without a surrender date."
But there was immediate anger from the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party.
"I cannot support a bill that contains nothing more than toothless benchmarks and that allows the president to continue what may be the greatest foreign policy blunder in our nation's history," Democratic Senator Russ Feingold said.
Democratic leaders upped the ante in talks with the White House last Friday, again insisting on the need for a date for troop withdrawals to begin — though offering Bush the power to waive the requirement.
But all along, they said they would get a bill funding the troops until the end of September to the president's desk before leaving on a week-long recess tomorrow.
There was no immediate reaction from the White House, which earlier cited the need to keep ongoing negotiations under wraps.
At least 15 US servicemen were reported killed this weekend in Iraq, and 76 so far this month, bringing total US losses since the invasion to 3,419, according to an AFP count based on Pentagon figures.
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