Thursday, May 24, 2007

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Congress bows to Bush, OKs Iraq funds

By DAVID ESPO, AP Special Correspondent 13 minutes ago

WASHINGTON - Bowing to President Bush, the Democratic-controlled Congress grudgingly approved fresh billions for the Iraq war Thursday night, minus the troop withdrawal timeline that drew his earlier veto. "The Iraqi government needs to show real progress in return for America's continued support and sacrifice," said the commander in chief, and he warned that August could prove to be a bloody month for U.S. troops in Baghdad's murderous neighborhoods.

The Senate's 80-14 vote to send the legislation to the president came less than two hours after the House gave its approval on a margin of 280-142. In both cases, Republicans supplied the bulk of the support, an oddity in an era of Democratic control.

Democrats in both houses coupled their concession with pledges to challenge Bush's his policies anew — and force Republicans to choose over and over between the president and public sentiment on the unpopular war. "This debate will go on," vowed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (news, bio, voting record).

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (news, bio, voting record) of Nevada was even more emphatic. "Senate Democrats will not stop our efforts to change the course of this war until either enough Republicans join with us to reject President Bush's failed policy or we get a new president," he said.

But Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (news, bio, voting record) of Kentucky cautioned against more of the same. "I want to make it clear ... that if all funding bills are going to be this partisan and contentious, it will be a very long year," he said.

From the White House to the Capitol, the day's events closed out one chapter in an epic struggle pitting Congress against the president over a war that has claimed the lives of more than 3,400 U.S. troops.

Democratic presidential politics played a role, as Sen. Barack Obama (news, bio, voting record) of Illinois, then Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, cast votes against the legislation, which was strongly opposed by anti-war activists.

In the House, Republican leader John Boehner (news, bio, voting record) of Ohio choked back tears as he stirred memories of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "After 3,000 of our fellow citizens died at the hands of these terrorists, when are we going to take them on? When are we going to defeat them," he asked.

The legislation includes nearly $95 billion to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through Sept. 30. In addition to jettisoning their plan for a troop withdrawal timeline, Democrats abandoned attempts to require the Pentagon to adhere to troop training, readiness and rest requirements unless Bush waived them.

The bill establishes a series of goals for the Iraqi government to meet as it strives to build a democratic country able to defend its own borders. Continued U.S. reconstruction aid would be conditioned on progress toward the so-called benchmarks, although Bush retains the authority to order that the funds be spent regardless of how the Baghdad government performs.

In exchange for providing the war money on Bush's terms, Democrats won White House approval for about $17 billion in spending above what the administration originally sought. Roughly $8 billion of that was for domestic programs from hurricane relief to farm aid to low-income children's health coverage.

Democrats also won a top priority — the first minimum wage increase in more than a decade. The current federal wage floor of $5.15 an hour will go to $7.25 in three installments of 70 cents.

Five months after taking power, Democrats also insisted on a variety of provisions to aid milk producers, American and Continental Airlines and rural counties hurt by the falloff in revenues from timber harvested on federal lands.

Republican concern about the war was evident, although the rank and file voted with few exceptions for the funds.

"It seems to me it's time for them (the Iraqis) to show what is their ability and professionalism to step up," said Sen. John Warner (news, bio, voting record), R-Va. He said if conditions do not improve by mid-July, the president should reconsider his strategy.

Democratic divisions were on display, vividly so when Reid voted for the war money after Pelosi opposed it.

In a highly unusual maneuver, House Democratic leaders crafted a procedure that allowed their rank and file to oppose money for the war, then step aside so Republicans could advance it. There were 194 Republicans in favor, as well as 86 Democrats, three members of the leadership among them. Pelosi and 139 other Democrats voted against the measure, as did two Republicans.

Moments earlier, the House voted 348-73 to include a separate package of domestic spending that Bush had once resisted.

After months of struggle with the White House, Democrats took credit for forcing Republicans to begin changing course. At the same time, they emphasized their distaste for enabling the money to advance.

"I hate this agreement," said Rep. David Obey (news, bio, voting record), D-Wis., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who played a key role in talks with the White House that yielded the measure.

He voted against the money, but Sen. Carl Levin (news, bio, voting record), D-Mich., no less an opponent of the conflict, cast a different vote.

"I cannot vote ... to stop funding for our troops who are in harm's way," said Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I simply cannot and I will not do that. It is not the proper way that we can bring this war to an end."

After the previous bruising veto battle, Democratic leaders said they hoped to clear the bill for Bush's signature by this Memorial Day weekend. The president rejected an earlier measure, objecting to a troop withdrawal timetable, and the House failed to override his objection.

Reflecting unhappiness among conservatives in his own party, Bush said he would have preferred less domestic spending than the bill contained. "But, still, by voting for this bill members of both parties can show our troops and the Iraqis and the enemy that our country will support our servicemen and women in harm's way," he said at a Rose Garden news conference.

One of the most vocal war critics in Congress readily agreed. "This is not a game. They run out of money next week," said Rep. John Murtha (news, bio, voting record) of Pennsylvania, whose speech opposing Bush's Iraq policy more than a year ago was a turning point in the debate.

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