The Democratic-controlled House failed Wednesday to override President Bush's veto of an Iraqi war spending bill with timetables for troop withdrawals.
The 222-203 vote, far short of the two-thirds majority needed for a veto override, occurred just ahead of a White House meeting that Bush called to begin compromise talks with congressional leaders of both parties on new legislation to finance the war, now in its fifth year.
"The president has turned a tin ear to the wishes of the American people," Speaker Nancy Pelosi (news, bio, voting record), D-Calif., said during the hour-long debate before the vote. "The president wants a blank check. The Congress will not give it to him."
But Rep. Jerry Lewis (news, bio, voting record), R-Calif., urged his colleagues to sustain the veto, saying politicians should not make military decisions.
"Now is not the time for the United States to back down in its war on terror," Lewis said.
Negotiations for a new spending bill could prove difficult. Both parties agree it should include benchmarks for progress in Iraq, but many Democrats insist they be tied to timelines for U.S. troop withdrawals if they are unmet. Bush and his congressional allies say such links are unacceptable.
Hours before the House vote sustained the veto, which Bush had issued Tuesday, the president showed little appetite for compromise.
"I am confident that with goodwill on both sides that we can move beyond political statements and agree on a bill that gives our troops the funds and flexibility to do the job that we asked them to do," he said in a speech in Washington before The Associated General Contractors of America.
Of the original bill pushed through Congress by Democrats, Bush said: "It didn't make any sense to impose the will of politicians over the recommendations of our military commanders in the field."
Pelosi had told reporters Wednesday: "Benchmarks are important, but they have to have teeth in order to be effective."
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (news, bio, voting record) said before the vote that he hopes to have a new bill passed in the House in two weeks, with a final measure sent to the president before Memorial Day. "We're not going to leave our troops in harms way . . . without the resources they need," said Hoyer, D-Md.
Hoyer would not speculate on exactly what the bill might look like, but said he anticipates a minimum-wage increase will be part of it. He said the bill should fund combat through Sept. 30 as Bush has requested, casting doubt that Democratic leaders will adopt a proposal by Rep. John Murtha (news, bio, voting record), D-Pa., to fund the war two or three months at a time.
As for bipartisan cooperation in Congress, neither side seemed in much of a hurry Wednesday. "There have been discussions about talking," Hoyer said.
Republican leader John Boehner (news, bio, voting record) of Ohio said Republicans weren't taking any options off the table. But "what I want is a clean bill" without a timetable on the war, he said
The situation has Democratic lawmakers in a difficult position. Because they control the House and Senate, the pressure is mainly on them to craft a bill that Bush will sign, and thus avoid accusations that they failed to finance troops in a time of war.
The party's most liberal members, especially in the House, say they will vote against money for continuing the war if there's no binding language on troop drawdowns. The bill Bush rejected would require the first U.S. combat troops to be withdrawn by Oct. 1 with a goal of a complete pullout six months later.
"I think the Democrats are in a box," Rep. Eric Cantor (news, bio, voting record), R-Va., said in an interview. "We're pretty resolute on our side. We are not going to tie this funding to any type of withdrawal deadline or any type of redeployment deadline."
Some Democrats believe the GOP solidarity will crack over time, noting that polls show heavy public support for a withdrawal plan.
Numerous possible compromises are being floated on Capitol Hill, all involving some combination of benchmarks. Some would require Bush to certify monthly that the Iraqi government is fully cooperating with U.S. efforts in several areas, such as giving troops the authority to pursue extremists.
The key impasse in Congress is whether to require redeployments of U.S. troops if the benchmarks are not met.
Under one proposal being floated, unmet benchmarks would cause some U.S. troops to be removed from especially violent regions such as Baghdad. They would redeploy to places in Iraq where they presumably could fight terrorists but avoid the worst centers of Sunni-Shia conflict.
A new spending bill "has got to be tied to redeployment," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (news, bio, voting record), D-Ill., the House's fourth-ranking Democratic leader. He conceded, however, that Democrats have yet to figure out where they will find the votes.
"Our members will not accept restraints on the military," House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (news, bio, voting record) of Missouri said. He suggested tying benchmarks to continued U.S. nonmilitary aid to Iraq, an idea that many Democrats consider too weak.
Democrats won control of the House and Senate in elections that largely focused on Iraq. They showed impressive solidarity in passing the bill that Bush vetoed Tuesday, losing only 14 House Democrats while holding 216.
But top Democrats say they have no hope of replicating that showing once they begin making even modest concessions to Bush. That makes them dependent on Republican help.