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House GOP Leaders Differ on Iraq Options

House Republican leaders were split yesterday on how to approach negotiations for a new Iraq supplemental spending bill, as the cracks between frustrated Congressional Republicans and the White House threatened to grow ever larger.

House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) repeatedly have floated the idea of tying benchmarks for the Iraqi government to reconstruction aid, but their stepping out on a “consequences package” came without sanction from Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) or the White House.

Pressed repeatedly Wednesday at a press conference with Blunt and Putnam smiling behind him, Boehner refused to say whether he supports binding benchmarks to hold the Iraqis accountable and said talking about it would be the “dumbest” thing he could do.

“I am not going to negotiate here in the press gallery,” Boehner said. “And I’m not going to negotiate with myself.”

It’s not the first time Blunt has separated himself from the White House message machine and Boehner, the man who beat him out for the Majority Leader post last year. Blunt already has staked out positions against the No Child Left Behind Act and other President Bush priorities and has maintained weekly press conferences with Putnam.

The split in the leadership message comes as concern is growing among rank-and-file Republicans across the political spectrum in both chambers about the lack of political progress in Iraq, with some saying that the White House has been taking their votes for granted. Although House Republicans stayed largely united Wednesday in sustaining the president’s veto of a $124 billion Democratic bill — the effort failed 222-203 with two Republicans joining the Democrats — some note that the public has soured on the war and are pushing for changes from the White House.

“We’re getting increasingly frustrated with the White House’s unwillingness to reach out to us and talk to us,” said one Republican Member. “We need to have three good months on the war or Republicans are going to jump from this White House, maybe not into the arms of [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.], but they’ll be keeping their distance from the White House.”

The Member also criticized the lack of movement by Bush and his team to provide ways of measuring progress in Iraq. “I agree that no one’s won a war by announcing their surrender date, but nobody’s won a war without benchmarks and timelines.”

While leaders from both parties met with Bush on Wednesday at the White House to discuss a new bill, no breakthroughs were reached, although Democratic leaders have pledged to move quickly on the next bill, and a bipartisan group of Senators including Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) is working to forge a compromise that would include benchmarks in an effort to garner a veto-proof majority.

“We’re not going to let this languish,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who added he’d like to see a bill through the House in the next two weeks and said Democrats would not allow the funding for the troops to fall short. Hoyer did not dispute that Democrats likely would remove timelines for withdrawal from the legislation, noting that there would be several future Defense bills that would come to the floor.

Hoyer also seized on the talk of compromise coming from Republicans, portraying Bush as the only one unwilling to hold the Iraqis accountable.

“A political solution must be reached by the Iraqis” and there should be “consequences for failure,” Hoyer said, in a near-echo of Blunt’s comments. “We believe that is what the American people believe is reasonable.”

Although Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rejected the idea of a consequences package over the weekend, the concept also has gotten some support from Republicans in the Senate, including Minority Whip Trent Lott (Miss.) and Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine).

The idea of binding benchmarks on the Iraqis was gaining support even among conservative Republicans such as Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.).

“I think there is no compromise on benchmarks or timetables for withdrawal connected to the military spending in Iraq, but I’m willing to listen to ways to create incentives with reconstruction dollars,” Pence said.

Blunt also noted again Wednesday that Republicans would not support restrictions on military commanders and spending and want to pare back the billions in unrelated spending tacked on to the bill.

For his part, Pence said he doesn’t fault Boehner for not wanting to discuss the idea yet. “I think it’s very appropriate that the Republican leader keep his cards very close to his vest.”

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) went even further, saying the United States should withdraw its troops if the Iraqis fail to meet realistic benchmarks.

But Shays added that the U.S. should withdraw if a vote of the Iraqi people shows they do not want us there or if the Iraqi government fails to make political progress.

“If they don’t meet deadlines we should withdraw,” Shays said, adding he didn’t think using economic aid as a carrot was enough of an incentive.

Shays criticized Democrats, however, for failing to reach out to the GOP to negotiate, arguing that they are more interested in using the unpopular war as a club in the 2008 elections than finding a bipartisan solution.

“Because I’m a target, they won’t sit down with me,” he said. “What they want to do is intimidate me and good luck with that.”

But Shays also had harsh words for the Iraqi parliament’s inability to get legislation passed. “If they go on vacation for two months while our people are still over there that will be the outrage of outrages,” Shays said.

Even as the Republicans increasingly are voicing their frustrations with the war and the White House, Democrats also are split over how to handle the next bill, with some, including House Appropriations subcommittee on Defense Chairman John Murtha (Pa.), preferring a 60-day spending bill and Hoyer preferring a bill similar to the bill just passed.

Hoyer also predicted that much of the add-on spending will remain on the bill despite Republicans calling for a “clean bill.” Hoyer suggested that Republicans will find it hard to vote against the additional funding for defense, veterans’ health care, Hurricane Katrina relief or drought aid.

Efforts to break a political deadlock over the future of the Iraq War kicked into high gear on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, with the White House and at least two separate bipartisan groups of Senate lawmakers stepping up efforts to forge a compromise on the supplemental war funding bill, including one convened by Warner that includes members of the Democratic and Republican leadership.

But a Democratic leadership aide sounded a cautious note about the prospects that Bush and Democrats could come to a deal anytime soon. “There’s no deal in the works, we’ll have to see how the next few days play out,” the aide said. The aide also said lawmakers will have a much better sense of how willing Bush may be to negotiate following meetings with White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, who has been dispatched to the Hill to begin talks today. A meeting is planned in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) office.

Warner said Wednesday that he had convened a small bipartisan group of lawmakers, which includes members of both his party’s leadership team as well as that of the Democratic majority. Warner said he hopes the meetings will result in a veto-proof deal that includes benchmarks and potentially some sort of consequences for the Iraqi government if it does not meet them. The “goal is to try and achieve a bill that would garner 70 votes,” Warner said, adding that while he is “optimistic we can get it done,” the heavy lifting will come in crafting both consequences as well as how to measure progress on benchmarks. “I think the benchmarks are pretty well identified … it’s the translation of how they’ll be graded and then how you translate that into what the president’s next steps will need to be.”

Lawmakers and aides said the benchmarks in the next supplemental are expected to be based on those in the version Bush vetoed Tuesday evening, which originally were authored by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).

At the same time, Snowe and an as-yet- unknown Democrat are expected to introduce legislation as soon as today that they hope ultimately will be the basis for a bipartisan deal on benchmarks and consequences for the new supplemental. Although Snowe has thus far declined to detail what the bill will look like, it is expected to include benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet and consequences targeting foreign aid to the government as an incentive to step up their efforts.

Additionally, the White House has begun its own effort to reach out to Members in both chambers to discuss potential paths forward. Nelson said Wednesday the White House had contacted him to set up a meeting.

Although a White House aide declined to comment on whom Bush will seek meetings with, Warner said, “The White House has talked to a number of us independently.”

Bush also met with House and Senate GOP leaders privately Wednesday before hosting a bipartisan group of lawmakers from both chambers later in the day.

Democratic aides said Reid actively has encouraged Nelson to reach out to Republicans in the hopes of striking a bipartisan compromise on the supplemental bill. Snowe indicated she has discussed the issue with Nelson, and one Democratic aide familiar with the situation said Nelson also has met with Warner.

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