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Veto survives House challenge; Dems meet with Bush on Iraq
WASHINGTON -- Congress failed to override President Bush's veto of legislation requiring the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq on Wednesday, a defeat for anti-war Democrats that triggered immediate talks on a new measure to fund the conflict.
The vote in the House was 222-203, 62 shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto. With few exceptions, Republicans stood fast with Bush in the wartime clash.
"I'm confident we can reach agreement," the president said moments after the vote as he sat down at the White House with leaders of the Democratic-controlled Congress who have vowed repeatedly to force him to change his war policy.
Democrats flashed defiance, yet signaled they were ready to make significant concessions such as jettisoning the troop withdrawal timetable in order to gain Bush's signature on a replacement measure. There was early talk in both parties of setting goals for the government of Iraq to meet as it strives to develop a self-defending, democratic society.
"Make no mistake, Democrats are committed to ending this war," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "We hope to do so in unison with the president of the United States," she said on a day of carefully scripted political drama at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
The veto vote hewed closely to party lines, with 220 Democrats and two Republicans in favor of overriding the president, and 196 Republicans and seven Democrats voting to sustain him.
Despite the magnitude of the issue, Bush's political victory was a foregone conclusion, and the one-hour debate on the House floor was suspenseless.
While Pelosi and other Democrats took turns criticizing Bush, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader, said that terrorists had made Iraq the central focus of their war against the United States.
"If we're not going to stand up to them in Iraq, we're not going to take them on in Iraq and defeat them there, where and when will we do it?" he asked.
The day's developments unfolded as the fourth of five brigades ordered into the war zone in January poured into Baghdad. Bush decided on the increased deployment as part of an attempt to quell sectarian violence in a war that has claimed the lives of more than 3,300 U.S. troops and grown increasingly unpopular.
It was only the second time in 6 1/2 years he has rejected a bill sent to him. In his formal veto message, he wrote that "the micromanagement in this legislation is unacceptable."
He also called the original bill unconstitutional for directing war operations "in a way that infringes upon the powers vested in the presidency."
Outside the White House, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid bristled at that claim. "We are not going to be submitting our legislation to somebody at one of the law schools to look for its constitutionality. We have an obligation, under the terms of the Constitution, to legislate," he said. "That's our job."
The main sticking point concerned the Democratic demand for a troop withdrawal timeline. Under the vetoed measure, the withdrawal would have begun no later than Oct., 1 with a goal of completion six months later.
It seemed unlikely Democrats would try the same approach a second time.
Instead, there was talk of establishing standards for the Iraq government to meet. Republicans, too, support benchmarks, suggesting an area of potential compromise.
But that led instantly to an area of obvious disagreement -- how, or whether, to enforce these so-called benchmarks if the government of Nouri al-Maliki fails to meet them.
"Benchmarks are important, but they have to have teeth in order to be effective," Pelosi said.
Whatever the ultimate outcome, Democrats said they were eager to proceed quickly.
"We're not going to leave our troops in harm's way ... without the resources they need," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland. He said he hopes to have a replacement measure ready for a vote within two weeks. Democratic leaders had said previously they hope to send Bush legislation he can sign before Memorial Day.
Bush has said the funds are needed quickly to prevent serious disruptions in military activities. Officials said White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolton would meet with Reid and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky on Thursday.
The House vote and subsequent White House meeting occurred in a political environment of increasing complexity.
While the Democratic leadership in Congress signaled it was ready to make concessions, at least one of the party's presidential hopefuls called for a more confrontational approach.
"We've got a few days -- maybe less -- to do absolutely everything we can to ensure this Congress responds to Bush's veto by sending another binding plan to end the war," former Sen. John Edwards wrote in a fundraising appeal on his Web site.
Assuming they jettison the withdrawal timetable, Democrats could face significant defections on the next legislation. That, in turn, would give Republicans in the House and Senate more leverage.
While most GOP lawmakers have stuck with the president so far, public opinion polls show strong opposition to the war. Several Republican officials said during the day that the party's lawmakers are looking for a way to signal impatience with the conflict and the government in Baghdad.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said she is circulating a proposal to reverse Bush's troop buildup and transfer combat operations to the Iraqis if the Baghdad government does not make progress in 120 days. U.S. military commanders would be given substantial flexibility, however, on how fast troops should leave.
Sen. John Warner of Virginia,a prominent Republican on defense issues, told reporters he was circulating one proposal that he declined to describe. He said he was confident "it can achieve more than 70 votes" needed to override a veto in the Senate.