WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives defied President George W. Bush on Thursday and passed an Iraq war funds bill providing only enough money to continue combat for two or three months, without a guarantee of future funding.
By a vote of 221-205, the House approved the Democratic-backed bill giving Bush $42.8 billion in emergency military funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But in a Democratic drive to bring the four-year-old Iraq war to an end, the bill would withhold an additional $52.8 billion until late July, after Bush submits progress reports. Lawmakers then would decide whether to use this second batch of money to continue combat, or bring U.S. troops home.
Bush wants the nearly $100 billion up front and without conditions. “I’ll veto the bill if it’s this haphazard, piecemeal funding,” Bush said earlier in the day.
The war-funding debate now moves to the Senate, which will try to amend the House bill enough to avert a second Bush veto. On May 1, Bush rejected a Democratic-backed bill that would have started U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq by October 1, with a non-binding goal of removing all combat soldiers by March 31.
Senators appear more willing to give Bush the $100 billion at once. Still unknown is how far the Senate might go in setting binding “benchmarks” to measure progress in Iraq.
Bush said he’ll back benchmarks but he and congressional Republicans do not want to spell out actions the U.S. would take if Iraqi progress in securing the country falls short.
Arguing for the House’s latest war-funding plan, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, said, “The president of the United States himself has stated that our commitment in Iraq is not open ended. That’s what this legislation says.”
During a daylong debate that demonstrated deep divisions in Congress, Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said, “We need to get our troops out of the killing zone.”
While Democrats praised U.S. troops for achieving every major mission they’ve been assigned, Democrats blamed Bush for mishandling the war by failing to craft a successful political strategy for Baghdad.
As evidence, Murtha described a country worse-off than before the war began in March 2003. Iraq’s oil and electricity production are below pre-war levels, there is less potable water than when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ruled and Iraqis are sagging under steep price inflation and high unemployment rates, he said.
The war also has killed 3,381 U.S. soldiers and injured more than 24,000, and Iraqis have suffered worse losses during sectarian strife that Democrats have labeled a civil war.
Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, the senior Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, countered that Democrats’ reluctance to fully fund the troops “clearly calls into question their commitment to men and women in uniform.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a letter to Congress, said the House Democrats’ two-step funding plan “would cause significant disruptions to the effective and efficient operation” of the military. He said the prolonged fight with Congress over war funding also “negatively impacts our forces in the field” by delaying mine-resistant vehicles and other combat equipment.
While most Republicans voted against the House bill, some have begun to put Bush on notice that without a turnaround in Iraq by September or October, their support for continuing the war might not be guaranteed.
Lawmakers from both political parties have been particularly irked over tentative plans by Iraq’s parliament to take a long summer break, with U.S. troops still in danger.
Staunch anti-war Democrats on Thursday pushed for a complete withdrawal of combat troops by early 2008. While they lost on a 255-171 vote, backers said the vote demonstrated a sizable portion of the House wants to end the unpopular war.