WASHINGTON - The Democratic-controlled House failed Wednesday to override President Bush's veto of an Iraq war spending bill with timetables for troop withdrawals. Democrats later met with Bush and emerged undeterred in their determination to bring soldiers home.
"Make no mistake, Democrats are committed to ending this war," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said outside the White House. "We hope to do so in unison with the president of the United States."
Bush showed he also has little appetite for backing down on what he wants in war funding legislation - namely, no strings on the military effort in Iraq.
"I am confident that with goodwill on both sides that we can move beyond political statements and agree on a bill that gives our troops the funds and flexibility to do the job that we asked them to do," he said in a speech in Washington before The Associated General Contractors of America.
Congressional leaders from both parties, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., went to the White House to discuss follow-up war funding legislation, a day after Bush vetoed the first version because it would require U.S. combat troops to begin withdrawing by Oct. 1. Reid and Pelosi sat stone-faced on either side of the president as Bush made a brief statement before their talks began.
"Yesterday was a day that highlighted differences," the president said. "Today is the day where we can work together to find common ground."
He added: "I'm confident we can reach agreement."
That seemed a tall order.
The meeting, delayed by the override vote but slated to last an hour, broke up after only about 30 minutes. And both Republican and Democratic leaders came out not to declare progress but only to promise to work toward it.
"We really didn't discuss the deal," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
"The president understands that there is a separate unit of government that he has to deal with, called the Congress," Reid said.
Negotiations were to start immediately, with Bush directing White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, national security adviser Stephen Hadley and budget director Rob Portman to represent him on Capitol Hill.
"We've figured out the process in terms of how we're going to begin to move forward - that's progress," insisted House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio.
The 222-203 vote in the House fell far short of the necessary two-thirds majority. Voting to override Bush's veto were 220 Democrats and two Republicans. Voting to sustain the veto were 196 Republicans and seven Democrats.
"The president has turned a tin ear to the wishes of the American people," Pelosi said during the hour-long debate beforehand. "The president wants a blank check. The Congress will not give it to him."
Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., said politicians should not make military decisions.
"Now is not the time for the United States to back down in its war on terror," Lewis said.
Negotiations for a new spending bill could prove difficult. Both parties agree it should include benchmarks for progress in Iraq, but many Democrats insist they be tied to timelines for U.S. troop withdrawals if they are unmet. Bush and his congressional allies say such links are unacceptable.
Pelosi had told reporters Wednesday: "Benchmarks are important, but they have to have teeth in order to be effective."
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said before the vote that he hopes to have a new bill passed in the House in two weeks, with a final measure sent to the president before Memorial Day.
"We're not going to leave our troops in harm's way ... without the resources they need," said Hoyer, D-Md.
Hoyer would not speculate on exactly what the bill might look like, but said he anticipates a minimum-wage increase will be part of it. He said the bill should fund combat through Sept. 30 as Bush has requested, casting doubt that Democratic leaders will adopt a proposal by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., to fund the war two or three months at a time.
The situation has Democratic lawmakers in a difficult position. Because they control the House and Senate, the pressure is mainly on them to craft a bill that Bush will sign, and thus avoid accusations that they failed to finance troops in a time of war.
The party's most liberal members, especially in the House, say they will vote against money for continuing the war if there's no binding language on troop drawdowns. The bill Bush rejected also contained a goal of a complete pullout by next spring.
"I think the Democrats are in a box," Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., said in an interview. "We're pretty resolute on our side. We are not going to tie this funding to any type of withdrawal deadline or any type of redeployment deadline."
Some Democrats believe the GOP solidarity will crack over time, noting that polls show heavy public support for a withdrawal plan.
Numerous possible compromises are being floated on Capitol Hill, all involving some combination of benchmarks. Some would require Bush to certify monthly that the Iraqi government is fully cooperating with U.S. efforts in several areas, such as giving troops the authority to pursue extremists.
The key impasse in Congress is whether to require redeployments of U.S. troops if the benchmarks are not met.
Under one proposal being floated, unmet benchmarks would cause some U.S. troops to be removed from especially violent regions such as Baghdad. They would redeploy to places in Iraq where they presumably could fight terrorists but avoid the worst centers of Sunni-Shia conflict.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., the House's fourth-ranking Democratic leader, conceded Democrats have yet to figure out where they will find the votes to tie benchmarks to redeployments.
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri suggested tying benchmarks to continued U.S. nonmilitary aid to Iraq instead. But that is an idea that many Democrats consider too weak.