Democrats meet with Bush at White House: No give on Iraq positions by either side
David Espo, AP
April 18, 2007
WASHINGTON — President Bush sparred across the table with Democratic congressional leaders opposed to the Iraq war on Wednesday in a prelude to a veto showdown over a conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 3,200 U.S. troops.
During an hourlong meeting at the White House, the president told lawmakers directly he will not sign any bill that includes a timetable for a troop withdrawal, 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 of Nevada, told reporters after the session. "I believe signing this bill will do that."
But Dana Perino, White House spokeswoman, said, "It appears that they are determined to send a bill to the president that he won't accept. They fundamentally disagree."
Several officials said the session was polite but turned pointed when Reid 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 seemed to bristle at the comparison, and said it didn't apply, according to one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was private.
It was the first time Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California have met with Bush to discuss the war since the House and Senate approved bills to provide funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with conditions that he has vowed to reject.
Top GOP 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, 2008. The Senate measure is weaker, requiring the beginning of a withdrawal within 120 days and setting a nonbinding goal of March 2008 for completion.
Given the narrow Democratic majority in the Senate, it appears unlikely the compromise will include the mandatory date for a complete withdrawal, although several Democratic aides cautioned that Reid and Pelosi have yet to make that decision.
Several officials described a meeting at the White House in which the president and congressional leaders discussed the establishment of standards for the Iraqi government to meet. The topic could 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 so-called benchmarks but without a requirement for a troop withdrawal if the Iraqis fail to meet them. That sets them apart from Democrats, who tend to want to link continued U.S. participation in the war to the ability of the Iraqi government to create a fully democratic government, allocate oil resources and provide for its own security.
Outside the White House, Republicans followed Democrats to the microphones to say there was no hope Bush would sign a bill resembling the Democrats' legislation.
House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said nothing had changed as a result of the meeting "except that people were polite, people were open, they were honest.
"The real issue ... is whether we're going to agree to a surrender date, and that's not going to happen," he said. Back in the Capitol, he said he would force a nonbinding vote within days on the troop withdrawal deadline.
Democrats said they were determined to press Bush for a change in policy.
"We came here in a spirit of hope, recognizing that this is a historic opportunity for the executive branch, the president and the Congress to work together to wind down this war and ensure the security of our country and the stability of the region," said Pelosi.
Sitting down with lawmakers, Bush acknowledged there were strong differences of opinion about how to proceed in Iraq.
"People have strong opinions around the table. I'm looking forward to listening to them," the president said. "I've got my own opinion, which I'm more than willing to share."
The meeting occurred on the same day that four large bombs exploded in mostly Shiite areas of Baghdad, killing nearly 200 people and wounding scores _ the deadliest day in the city since the start of the U.S.-Iraqi campaign to pacify the capital two months ago.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, traveling in the Mideast, called it "horrifying."