WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats on Wednesday failed to override President George W. Bush’s veto of Iraq war funding legislation that would force a troop pullout timetable, prompting the start of tense negotiations on a compromise.
Bush welcomed somber Democratic leaders to the White House shortly after the veto override attempt failed in the House of Representatives and said he was confident an agreement could be found on a bitterly debated $124 billion war funding bill.
“Yesterday was a day that highlighted differences,” Bush said of Tuesday’s veto. “Today is a day where we can work together to find common ground.”
Democratic leaders called the session positive but insisted their main goal is to find a way to end the four-year-old Iraq war, in which 3,300 Americans and countless Iraqis have been killed.
“Whatever our differences, we owe it to the American people to find our common ground. Of course, we must stand our ground if we can’t find it. But we must strive to find that common ground,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.
No easy compromise was within reach.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he would like to see an agreement by the end of May.
White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and McConnell are to meet on Thursday for some initial soundings.
But Bush added to partisan tensions by charging in a veto message sent to Capitol Hill that Democrats were acting out of their constitutional bounds by trying to legislate a troop pullout that would begin this year.
He said the legislation was unconstitutional because “it purports to direct the conduct of the operations of the war in a way that infringes upon the powers vested in the presidency by the Constitution, including as commander in chief of the armed forces.”
The Constitution gives Congress authority to approve the U.S. budget and lawmakers in the past have used that power to force changes in foreign policy.
Reid was dismissive.
“For him to talk about something being unconstitutional, that’s a little unusual, and I don’t want to get into the other things that have been done with this administration which have clearly been unconstitutional,” Reid said.
The House override vote was 222-203, far short of the two-thirds majority needed, but it showed growing support in the House for pulling the troops out of a war that is testing the patience of the American people.
Bush said it was time to agree on legislation that would give U.S. troops the money and flexibility to do their job.
“Even if you think it was a mistake to go into Iraq, it would be a far greater mistake to pull out now,” Bush told the Association of General Contractors of America. “There is no easy road out. The easy road would be the wrong road.”
The Bush administration says an infusion of funds is needed soon, but Democrats argue that the U.S. Army has enough money on hand to finance the Iraq war through most of July.
Anticipating they would 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 were “benchmarks” for measuring the Iraqi government’s progress in stabilizing the country, where violence has been particularly gruesome recently.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested the problem may not be the benchmarks themselves, but spelling out consequences — such as troop withdrawals — if the Iraqis fail to meet the targets.
“I think one of the issues will be: To what degree are there consequences involved if one or another benchmark isn’t met?” he told reporters at the Pentagon.
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Tabassum Zakaria and Susan Cornwell