WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush and Democrats in charge of the U.S. Congress set themselves on a collision course on Monday over Bush’s $100 billion funding request for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Ahead of crucial White House talks on Wednesday, Bush set conditions for discussions with Democrats on the request, saying he would not consider a troop withdrawal deadline nor billions of dollars in extra spending.
“I hope the Democratic leadership will drop their unreasonable demand for a precipitous withdrawal,” Bush said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, immediately rejected Bush’s call for a funding bill with no conditions.
“The president is not going to get a bill that has nothing on it,” Reid told reporters. “It would be wrong for this legislative branch of government to capitulate to this wrong-headed policy that the vice president and the president have been leading,” he added.
While Bush has said he wants to discuss the funding dispute at the meeting, White House officials have made clear that he has no plans to negotiate.
Bush complained about billions of dollars in unrelated domestic spending projects that have been added to the legislation as a way to attract votes.
While saying he is willing to seek common ground with Democrats, Bush laid down some tough conditions for the talks.
“I am willing to discuss any way forward that does not hamstring our troops, set an artificial timetable for withdrawal, and spend billions on projects not related to the war,” Bush said.
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said Democrats would work with Bush and Republicans to build a consensus on a policy that “responsibly winds down this war.”
“We are ready to work with the president to change the direction in Iraq, but the president must accept the facts and put aside partisan attacks and heated rhetoric,” she said.
A group of lawmakers from the Senate and House is expected to meet on Tuesday to begin writing the final version of a war-funding bill to send to Bush.
But the group might first focus on the domestic spending added to Bush’s request by Democrats, while Reid and Pelosi continue working out details on the Iraq troop withdrawal language.
Those domestic spending add-ons range from rebuilding states hit in 2005 by hurricanes to aid to farmers, raising the minimum wage and spending more on veterans’ health care.
Reid was vague on what Congress would do if Bush vetoes the Democrats’ bill, as he has threatened. “If he vetoes it, we’ll come back and take a look” at ideas, Reid said.
Reid delivered his attack on the administration’s war policy against a backdrop with the words “Transition the mission” and “Support our troops,” and flanked by two retired U.S. generals who back timetables for withdrawing from Iraq.
Lt. Gen. Robert Gard told reporters, “You know what? The current situation is reminiscent of the spring of 1965 in Vietnam.” Gard fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
The House version of the bill requires all U.S. combat troops to withdraw from Iraq by September 1, 2008. The Senate’s approach would begin troop withdrawals this year with a goal, not a mandate, that combat troops leave by March 31, 2008.