WASHINGTON -- President Bush accused congressional Democrats Wednesday of meddling in Iraq war policy and setting a deadline for a U.S. pullout that would have disastrous repercussions for both countries.
As the Senate resumed debate Wednesday on a bill containing a spring 2008 timetable for bringing American troops home, Bush argued again that such a step would result in a needless delay of funds for troops. But Democrats are insisting that he'll have to accept some sort of timeline to get the money.
"Why doesn't he get real with what's going on with the world?" Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said after Bush's speech. "We're not holding up funding in Iraq and he knows that. Why doesn't he deal with the real issues facing the American people?"
Bush said Wednesday that the Democratic strategy move will not force him to negotiate. He said again that he would veto any funding legislation that includes a withdrawal timeline.
"The consequences of imposing such a specific and random date of withdrawal would be disastrous," Bush said in a speech at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association meeting. "Our enemies in Iraq would simply have to mark their calendars. They'd spend the months ahead plotting how to use their new safe haven once we were to leave. It makes no sense for politicians in Washington, D.C. to be dictating arbitrary timelines for our military commanders in a war zone 6,000 miles away."
Bush broadly defended his new war plan, which involves sending 21,500 additional U.S. combat troops to Iraq to help secure Baghdad and troubled Anbar Province.
He said two months of joint operations with Iraqi troops have seen some early successes but "it's going to require a sustained, determined effort to succeed."
"If we cannot muster the resolve to defeat this evil in Iraq, America will have lost its moral purpose in the world and we will endanger our citizens," the president said. "If we leave Iraq before the job is done, the enemy will follow us here."
Bush accused lawmakers of engaging in little more than "political statements" even as money for troops will run out next month.
"If Congress fails to pass a bill to fund our troops on the front lines, the American people will know who to hold responsible," Bush said.
But Reid and other Democrats say they won't back down.
"This Congress will hold him accountable for the conduct of this war and we will have legislation that will give him every dollar he asks for for our troops and more, but with accountability," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking as she received an endorsement from the National Organization for Women for her presidential race, called on Bush to back down.
"He is willing to veto the will of the people who elected this Congress to start bringing our troops home," she said. "The president should listen to the will of the people and the experience of those who have been working on this for years and start redeploying our troops."
The bill finances operations in Iraq and Afghanistan but requires Bush begin bringing home some combat troops right away with a nonbinding goal of ending combat missions as of March 31, 2008.
The House last week passed a similar bill by a 218-212 vote. That bill orders combat troops out by Aug. 31, 2008 -- guaranteeing the final spending measure negotiated with the Senate will include some sort of timetable on the war.
Sen. John McCain, a 2008 Republican presidential aspirant, called the vote "a very bad decision."
McCain, appearing on NBC's "Today" show Wednesday from Orlando, Fla., said the war "was badly mismanaged. But there are signs of progress everywhere. ... I am confident that given the opportunity, we can have success. The consequences of failure are catastrophic because if we come home, bin Laden and Zarqawi, they are going to follow us."
Senate Republicans tried Tuesday to strip out the withdrawal language but failed in a 50-48 vote. One Democrat -- Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas -- sided with Republicans in opposition to the public deadline, contending such a measure would broadcast U.S. war plans to the enemies.
"Congress should not define how long our enemy has to hang on to win," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Sen. Chuck Hagel delivered the deciding vote by joining anti-war Republican Gordon Smith of Oregon in breaking ranks and voting with Democrats to put a nonbinding end date on the war.
"Is the cost worth what we are attempting to accomplish? Is the cost worth the high price we are asking others to pay? Ultimately, that is the question we should always ask ourselves," said Hagel, R-Neb., in a floor speech on Wednesday.
Pryor said he supports setting a deadline for U.S. involvement in Iraq, but only so long as such a date remains classified. Pryor compares the 2008 date set by his Democratic colleagues akin to announcing to the Germans plans for the U.S. invasion of France in World War II.
But ultimately, Pryor said, he will vote in favor of the bill.
"At the end of the day, the end of the process, I'm going to support the troops," he said.
The vote leaves hanging a small group of Republicans frustrated by the war and wanting to go on record as such but opposed to setting a timetable.
In recent months, GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, John Warner of Virginia, Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Olympia Snowe of Maine wanted legislation expressing opposition to Bush's war strategy and setting goals for the Iraqi government to meet in exchange for continued U.S. support.
But each said they opposed setting a firm timetable on the war and sided with their Republican colleagues.
"My vote against this rapid withdrawal does not mean that I support an open-ended commitment of U.S. troops to Iraq," Collins said in a statement issued after the vote.
If Bush's strategy in Iraq does not show "significant results" by fall, "then Congress should consider all options including a redefinition of our mission and a gradual but significant withdrawal of our troops next year."