WASHINGTON -- Democratic leaders are turning to Republicans to help them pass a new Iraq war spending bill that President Bush won't veto -- unlike the one Congress will send him next week with a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops.
Bush repeated his promise Friday to veto the war spending bill and any such measure with a pullout date, even as Democrats renewed their calls for the president to sign the $124.2 billion bill.
"If the Congress wants to test my will as to whether or not I'll accept the timetable for withdrawal, I won't accept one," Bush declared.
At the same time, both sides were laying the groundwork for a high-stakes, post-veto negotiation. The president invited Democrats and Republicans to come to the White House on Wednesday to talk about it, and leaders in both parties said they would attend.
Democrats were already looking for ways to draw Republican support for a new spending measure, knowing they would need GOP votes to pass any bill that Bush would sign. However, a move to water down the withdrawal language is virtually certain to cost them the votes of liberal Democrats who have been uneasy about supporting any war funding.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has talked to Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, about how to move forward. Senior House leadership aides have held "very preliminary" discussions with White House staffers about post-veto negotiations, although House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has not yet reached out to GOP leaders on the issue, one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were not public.
Forming bipartisan group
Still, as they hunted for the votes to pass their Iraq bill earlier this week, Democratic leaders were quietly reaching out to some moderate Republicans on a backup plan. They would need GOP votes to pass a new war funding measure once Bush executed his veto, Democrats told the Republicans, and they wanted to start assembling a bipartisan group that could write one.
"There's been talking behind the scenes about how to do this, because they know if they make substantial changes to the bill they will lose a series of Democrats," said Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del, a leading moderate. "They understand that they're going to need a solution that goes beyond their own membership and there are a number of Republicans who want to get this behind them, too."
Republican leaders say they would consider including benchmarks for the Iraqi government as part of the war funding measure, although they have not said how they would be enforced.
Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, the No. 3 Republican, said he is open to the idea of blocking further reconstruction or other aid funding to Iraq -- though not military spending -- if the government does not meet such requirements.
Democrats are "going to have to pull out the surrender dates -- clearly those are the most unacceptable items -- as well as the strings on our troops," Putnam said in an interview. "Democrats and Republicans alike would like to see accountability, particularly on the Iraq government, and that can come in the form of benchmarks."
"There could be some kind of bipartisan agreement" on benchmarks, McConnell said, but he declined to say what the consequences would be, if any, for failing to meet them.
"Consequences are a little more divisive," he said.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a prominent moderate, is proposing ending the surge within four months if the Iraqi government cannot live up to key political benchmarks. She was working Friday to garner Democratic support for her measure.
Including benchmarks could allow both sides to claim some measure of victory. Democrats could say they had fulfilled their promise not to give Bush a "blank check" to continue a war that has lost popular support and cost more than 3,200 American lives.
Bush and Republican lawmakers could signal they don't support an open-ended U.S. commitment in Iraq without embracing efforts to end the conflict.
Senior Democratic aides say there may be little point now in pressing their confrontation with Bush on the Iraq spending bill, and suggest it is more likely they will try to use future measures -- such as a defense authorization bill or other spending bills -- to challenge the president.
"It's like a mystery story in which we've all read the last chapter," said Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution congressional expert. "We all know that the president is going to get his money -- the only question is when and how."
The bill is H.R. 1591.