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House Passes Iraq Conference Report, Senate Set to Pass Bill Thursday

The Senate is set to pass the $124 billion Iraq supplemental spending bill Thursday and send it to President Bush’s veto pen, one day after the House approved the measure on a 218-208 vote Wednesday night.

The bill passed the House mostly along party lines, with two Members voting present in a near-repeat of the 218-212 vote on the original bill.

The House vote came after a high-profile briefing from the top American general in Iraq did little to thaw the increasingly acrimonious atmosphere in the Senate on Wednesday, providing partisans on either side of the debate with additional fodder for the war of words leading up to next week’s expected veto of the supplemental.

With neither side showing any sign of movement, Senate aides said Wednesday that today’s vote on the supplemental conference report was expected to mirror the vote prior to the April recess and that little activity would occur on their side of the Capitol prior to a veto override vote in the House, which is expected sometime next week.

Senate Democrats emerged from a short classified briefing with Army Gen. David Petraeus declaring President Bush’s chief commander in Iraq had provided lawmakers with little in the way of new details and had done nothing to change their belief that the administration must change course in Iraq.

“He said the same thing we’ve heard before. Give us more time” to show our strategy is working, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said following the meeting.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) echoed those comments, saying Petraeus gave lawmakers scant evidence that a settlement to the conflict is closer and argued a political solution is the only option. “The most decisive factor is the political factor,” Levin said.

Republicans, meanwhile, said the main lesson of the meeting was that funding should be freed up for the troops as soon as possible. “One thing that is clear is that we need to get the money to the troops,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said following the meeting.

Following the session with Petraeus, McConnell and other GOP leaders sought to argue that it would take months, if not longer, before any measure of success in Iraq could be taken.

Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairwoman Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) said that Petraeus should not be judged on “Washington time” but rather “Baghdad time” which is significantly slower, and that it could take months before any significant progress “by our standards” is seen in Iraq. “I think we need to do what it takes no matter how long it takes,” Hutchison said.

Levin and other Democrats said the final shape of the bill — which will likely originate in the House, putting the political burden on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — will largely depend on the size of that chamber’s vote. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who authored a set of benchmarks in the Senate supplemental, said he hopes the version Congress produces following Bush’s veto will include similar language. GOP aides Wednesday pointed out that most Republicans have backed the benchmarks, so long as they do not include timetables for withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

In Wednesday night’s House vote, wavering liberals, including Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), voted aye, getting a hug from Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.). Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.) also voted in favor, after voting against the original bill.

The nearly monolithic Republican vote against the Democratic bill also showed a new crack.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), an appropriator, voted “present,” and spent minutes after the vote talking to one of two Republicans to vote against the bill, Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (Md.), and she received a hug from Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.).

The vote followed two hours of impassioned speeches, with Republicans arguing that Democrats were sending a message of defeat and surrender to our enemies and Democrats asserting that they were finally bringing accountability to a White House that had badly bungled the war for four years.

Democrats cheered Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), an Iraq War veteran who talked of his fellow soldiers who died.

“This bill says enough is enough, no more shortchanging our troops, no more open-ended war in Iraq, no more refereeing a religious conflict,” Murphy said, asking Republicans that if they are not willing to support a timeline for withdrawal on the fourth anniversary of the war, “How about a timeline on the sixth? How about a timeline on the 10th?”

But House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said that Iraq “is the central front in the war against al-Qaida and this is the battleground with Iran,” charging that retreat would only embolden America’s enemies. “Are we just going to look the other way?”

Before the vote, Wednesday in the House included as much politics as policy, as Democrats and Republicans held dueling press conferences following Petraeus’ briefing of House Members.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the briefing “reinforced our view that the solution in Iraq is a political solution,” not something that the military can achieve on its own.

“I believe we must hold the Iraqis accountable” and set a timetable for withdrawal, he said.

Hoyer said the legislation, which would require troops to begin leaving Iraq on Oct. 1, but has no firm end date for the war, would help Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government win the political compromises needed to unite Iraqis.

“Our troops are mired in a civil war with no clear enemy and no strategy for success,” Hoyer said. Hoyer also acknowledged a significant presence of al-Qaida in Iraq, but he said that sectarian violence has been the major problem.

Boehner focused instead on al-Qaida as the chief obstacle to peace in Iraq by staging spectacular attacks, and said Petraeus indicated that a timetable for withdrawal “would not be helpful to his cause.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) went so far as to call on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to resign for his comments that the war is “lost” and cannot be won by military means. Reid’s comments were “totally irresponsible,” Hunter said, noting that Petraeus mentioned that the war was a “test of wills” and that what lawmakers say is listened to by the enemy.

“The leader of the Senate should step down from that position,” Hunter said.

Asked for reaction to Hunter’s statements, Reid spokesman Jim Manley said “I’m not gonna comment on a presidential wannabe.”

Even before last night’s House vote on the conference report, lawmakers were already looking past the president’s veto to the next bill.

House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told reporters that Republicans were willing to support “a consequences package” for the Iraqi government if they continue to fail to make political progress on such issues as national reconciliation and division of oil revenues, but would not support any restrictions on the military.

“There should be some consequences for the Maliki government,” he said.

Blunt said he hoped that binding benchmarks for the Iraqi government could yield a compromise with Democrats.

But Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), an appropriator and a member of the Out of Iraq Caucus, said he didn’t think that alone would be enough.

“I don’t think it’s enough to achieve a compromise, but I think it’s an interesting idea that I don’t think Democrats have a problem with,” he said. Moran pointed out that direct aid to the Iraqis was a relatively small part of the war’s cost. “It’s 5 percent of the bill,” he said. “You are going to have to deal with the other 95 percent as well.”

Republicans also attacked Pelosi for skipping the Petraeus briefing. She issued a statement noting that she already had been briefed personally by the general on Tuesday. Petraeus’ briefing provided spectacularly awkward timing for the Democratic leaders as they were whipping votes for the Iraq supplemental. Blunt contended that the timing was coincidental.

Blunt acknowledged that there is a risk that at some point they could start losing more Republicans on war votes. “I don’t have that concern in the near term,” he said. However, he added, “We need to get some better results in Iraq. … That needs to happen.”