Senators seeking Iraq compromise

Bush signals willingness to accept benchmarks

May 11, 2007|By Noam N. Levey | Noam N. Levey,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Seeking to end the partisan standoff over funding the war in Iraq, politically moderate senators from both parties pressed their efforts yesterday to find a compromise that could put new requirements on the Iraqi government without holding up money for U.S. troops.

At least seven GOP lawmakers are involved in the talks, which come as congressional Republicans are increasingly looking to distance themselves from the president's unpopular management of the war.

Meanwhile, President Bush signaled a new willingness to compromise with Congress over the terms of a war funding bill, saying he would accept benchmarks for the Iraqi government as part of an agreement. He had previously rejected any conditions in the funding bill.

The negotiations were unfolding as many congressional Democrats continued to demand a quicker end to the war.

Yesterday, 171 members of the House voted in favor of a bill that would have required the president to begin withdrawing troops in three months and complete the pullout in nine months. The measure failed as 59 Democrats, including Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, joined 196 Republicans to defeat it.

Among other members of the Maryland delegation, Democratic Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, John Sarbanes, Chris Van Hollen, and Albert R. Wynn voted to begin withdrawing troops within three months. Democratic Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, and Republican Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett and Wayne T. Gilchrest voted against a pullout.

House Democrats did succeed yesterday in passing an emergency war spending bill that authorizes $43 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through July. The bill makes future funding contingent on progress reports indicating whether the Iraqi government is reaching political reconciliation between the country's sectarian blocs.

The 221-205 vote was largely along party lines.

Cummings, Gilchrest, Hoyer, Ruppersberger, Sarbanes, Van Hollen and Wynn voted in favor of the short-term funding plan. Bartlett voted against it.

But Bush -- who last month vetoed a Democratic spending bill that would have compelled him to begin a withdrawal -- has indicated that he will also veto any measure that parcels out war funding in installments.

"There's a lot of uncertainty in funding when it comes to two-month cycles. So we reject that idea," Bush said at the Pentagon after a briefing with top brass.

With limited Democratic support in the Senate, it appears unlikely that the House proposal will make much headway. Instead, as congressional Democrats race to send a bill to the president by Memorial Day, the focus has turned to Senate efforts to involve moderate Republicans.

"We need 11 Republican senators," said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, calculating that would give Democrats the 60 votes they would need to overcome any GOP filibuster.

Democrats must pass war spending bills in the House and Senate, at which point a conference committee would reconcile any differences. The two chambers would vote again on the conference report.

Sens. Olympia J. Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine, and Evan Bayh, a moderate Democrat from Indiana, unveiled a plan yesterday to link the withdrawal of U.S. forces to a series of benchmarks the Iraqi government would have to meet.

Under their plan, Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, would have to begin planning a withdrawal unless the Iraqi government makes progress on efforts to share oil wealth, disarm militias and other steps to reduce violence between Sunnis and Shiites.

Republican Sens. Susan M. Collins of Maine and John W. Warner of Virginia have been talking to Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, a moderate Democrat who frequently works with GOP lawmakers, about tying continued U.S. reconstruction aid to the same benchmarks.

Collins and Warner backed an earlier nonbinding resolution opposing the White House plan to increase troop levels in Iraq.

Republican Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, both of whom face tough re-election fights, have also talked to Democrats about compromise Iraq legislation.

Meanwhile, Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, has joined with Sen. Ken Salazar, a Colorado Democrat, on legislation they plan to introduce that expresses support for a reduction in military backing for the Iraqi government if it fails to meet certain "milestones."

Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon H. Smith of Oregon have voted for Democratic measures to set a timeline for withdrawing U.S. forces, making them likely votes for bipartisan bills.

Noam N. Levey writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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