House leaders appear poised to abandon a firm deadline for withdrawing troops from Iraq as they negotiate behind the scenes with Senate leaders on the $120 billion-plus war supplemental, concerning some House anti-war liberals who reluctantly voted for the supplemental initially.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been trying to keep House liberals on board for next week’s crucial vote on the Iraq War supplemental despite the need to water down proposed troop withdrawal timetables to ensure victory in the Senate.
Pelosi met with members of the Out of Iraq Caucus on the issue Tuesday, and she said Wednesday that she is confident that they will have the votes to pass the supplemental next week.
“In my conversations with the House Democrats, I believe that I have a strong hand to visit the president today, to speak with one voice with [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] on a new direction in Iraq,” Pelosi said. “I believe, whatever the outcome of that conference, that my colleagues will be there.”
Following a meeting with Bush at the White House on Wednesday, Pelosi and Reid expressed at least some hope that President Bush would ultimately sign what emerges from conference, despite Bush’s repeated veto threats.
Reid said he hoped Bush would look at the bill and conclude, “Maybe this isn’t so bad after all.”
And Pelosi said the American people “want us to work together to wind down this war.”
But first she has to keep her Caucus in line.
The House has a firm deadline of withdrawing combat troops by the end of August 2008, but the Senate has a nonbinding goal of withdrawal by March 2008. Many House liberals wanted an earlier 2007 deadline but reluctantly voted for the bill and now will be asked to compromise even further in order to get a bill to the president’s desk.
House appropriators signaled Wednesday they were prepared to compromise.
“I can vote for anything that continues to put pressure on Bush,” said House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.). “I have always said it isn’t the language that matters — we aren’t writing the Declaration of Independence. It’s whether we’re putting pressure on Bush.”
Obey then gestured to the Republican side of the House and said he wants to put them on the spot to vote “again and again and again until they say, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. President, our tongues are hanging and we’re not going to do it any more.’”
Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Defense, also said that the specifics of the timetable language aren’t particularly important.
“He’s going to veto whatever we pass so it doesn’t make much difference to me,” he said.
Some, but not all, of the liberal Out of Iraq Caucus members were on board with dropping the strict timetable.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), one of many freshman Democrats elected on a platform of ending the war, said that he was uncomfortable voting for a weaker bill.
“I’m not going to lock myself into anything now, but I had a very tough time getting to the last vote and to go much further would stretch me beyond what I can do,” he said. Ellison urged his colleagues to stand firm against Bush’s veto threats. “This is nothing more than him trying to make Congress knuckle under,” he said.
Another Out of Iraq member, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) attended the leadership meeting and described the session as “congenial.” During the session the Speaker offered various options for the spending bill, which Schakowsky did not detail, but she said it was a “very collaborative meeting.”
“The key element here is deadline, it is not about money,” Schakowsky said. “As long as we’re talking about the end of the war, I support it.”
But Schakowsky stopped short of saying whether she would oppose any measure that did not contain the current timeline, saying she would wait to see the details of the bill.
Other Members, however, including Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who voted in support of the Iraq spending bill in March, said it remains less clear whether they will back any measure that contains fewer restrictions than the current House version.
“It was a difficult vote then, it becomes an even more difficult vote now,” Grijalva said Wednesday. During the March vote, the Arizona lawmaker noted that he would have opposed the bill but felt he had to support his Democratic colleagues.
Without the same accountability measures, including benchmarks for the Iraqi government and the timeline, however, Grijalva said he will not support a compromise legislation. “Right now, it’s not even a slim chance,” he said.
But Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), a leading Iraq opponent and likely conference committee member, said he is prepared to compromise. “The important thing here is to get a bill to the president that has all the provisions to protect our troops … and begins to talk seriously about getting out of Iraq.
“Would I prefer a bill that is ‘out of Iraq now?’ Yes, but that’s not reality. …We can talk all we want about how we want to end the war and provide funding for veterans hospitals, but unless we send him a bill saying that we want those things we can’t really say that we did it.”
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee and another member of the Out of Iraq Caucus, said Democrats should not throw the whole bill overboard even if they don’t like the specifics of the compromise that emerges from conference.
“What we have to do is get what we can,” he said. “You have to be pragmatic.”
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) predicted that while some of his fellow Out of Iraq colleagues may grumble, in the end they will support a weaker conference report.
“We can’t ignore the realities in the Senate,” he said. “I trust the leadership. I think Nancy’s trying to do her best. … You don’t cut off your nose to spite your face just because you weren’t able to do better.”
That political reality comes in the form of Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a member of the conference committee. Democrats need his vote, and Nelson has warned the House he will not support a firm deadline for removing troops and would prefer no timetable be in the bill at all.
Democrats also are starting to lay the groundwork for a fallback bill after the president vetoes the supplemental, what Murtha calls “Phase Two” and said would be considered immediately following a veto.
“I want to work something out, and I hope the president does, too,” Murtha said.
But Murtha insisted that any delays should be blamed on Bush, not Congress. “If we get a bill to him and he vetoes it, he’s responsible,” Murtha said.
Democrats also seized on a statement from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that Congressional pressure was having a positive impact.
“The president has to think hard and long about the words of his own secretary of Defense,” Pelosi said.
Gates said in a Tuesday press conference, “I’ve been pretty clear that I think the enactment of specific deadlines would be a bad mistake. But I think the debate itself and I think that the strong feelings expressed in the Congress about the timetable probably has had a positive impact — at least I hope it has — in terms of communicating to the Iraqis that this is not an open-ended commitment.”
Republicans, meanwhile, said they would offer a motion when the Democrats name conferees as early as Thursday intended to force a vote on what they called the Democratic “dates for surrender.”
Obey said he expects the conference committee to meet on April 23, House passage on April 25 and Senate passage on April 26.
Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.