WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush vetoed a bill on Tuesday that would force him to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq this year as a condition of funding the war, angering Democrats who vowed to fight on.
"Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a deadline for failure, and that would be irresponsible," Bush said in a nationally televised speech shortly after issuing only the second veto of his presidency.
Bush's rejection of the legislation came on the four-year anniversary of his 2003 speech announcing the end of major combat operations in Iraq beneath a "Mission Accomplished" banner, an event roundly condemned by war critics.
"Stop the war now," shouted a handful of protesters outside the White House gate.
In vetoing a $124 billion bill to fund wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush said he was stopping legislation that "substitutes the opinions of politicians for the judgment of our military commanders."
Under the legislation, which won the support of only four Republicans in Congress, American troop withdrawals would begin as early as July 1 and no later than October 1, with the nonbinding goal of removing all combat troops by March 31.
Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives planned to hold a veto override vote on Wednesday, and while they did not have the votes to override his veto, they vowed to keep fighting for a change in course.
"The president wants a blank check. The Congress is not going to give it to him," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.
Bush invited congressional leaders to the White House to discuss next steps, saying, "I'm confident that with good will on both sides, we can agree on a bill that gets our troops the money and flexibility they need as soon as possible."
Pelosi promised to work with Bush to find common ground, "but there is a great distance between us right now."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada added, "If the president thinks that by vetoing this bill, he will stop us from working to change the direction of this war, he is mistaken."
Nearly $100 billion of the $124 billion bill would fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this year. The rest would fund domestic projects Bush claims are either wasteful or not urgent, ranging from health care for poor children and farm aid to rebuilding southern states hit by 2005 hurricanes and increasing the minimum wage.
Anticipating that they will not be able to override the veto, congressional leaders are negotiating over new approaches for getting the war funds into the pipeline with conditions that Bush would accept.
Among ideas circulating on Capitol Hill are including "benchmarks" for measuring the Iraqi government's progress in stabilizing the country, where violence has been particularly gruesome recently.
It is unclear whether that progress would be tied to aid to Iraq or some sort of language on U.S. troop levels.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland)