Showdown

March 29, 2007

Iraq war critics in the Senate as well as the House have pulled together a majority in favor of setting a date for withdrawal of U.S. forces that now makes almost certain a direct confrontation on the issue with President Bush.

Most damaging for Mr. Bush was the defection of his fellow Republicans in the Senate. Not just the two - Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon H. Smith of Oregon - who voted with the overwhelming majority of Democrats to support a nonbinding pull-out date of March 31, 2008, but the entire Senate Republican caucus, which declined to filibuster in defense of their president's position opposing any such timetable.

The smartest move for Mr. Bush - militarily as well as politically - would be to accept yesterday's invitation from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to join them in the negotiations before the House and Senate reconcile the relatively minor differences between their respective versions of the war spending bill with the withdrawal timeline.

By doing so, the president could gracefully acknowledge what last fall's elections made obvious: that he no longer has sufficient public support for the war to run it with a free hand. But at the same time, he could probably win a better bargain with the Democrats on the withdrawal language, such as accepting the Senate's nonbinding terms instead of the House requirement that most American combat troops be home by September 2008.

If instead Mr. Bush follows through on his threat to veto the spending bill - as he seems determined to do - he risks losing further ground within his party, which is less and less willing to wage its future on the dim prospect that a military victory can still be salvaged from a bloody sectarian conflict.

Also at stake is, of course, the money. The White House hopes to cast the Democrats as holding up a critical $122 billion for war funding in Iraq and Afghanistan in a futile exercise intended mostly as political statement. War critics don't have the two-thirds vote necessary in both chambers to override a veto.

Yet time appears to be on the Democrats' side. They calculate that the money is not needed for two months or more and that the Pentagon could simply shift funds from other accounts if need be. Meanwhile, the drumbeat grows ever louder, demanding that American troops come home before more lives are lost for an ill-conceived and hopeless cause.

By one means or another, Mr. Bush should start seriously looking for a way out.

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