New York Times
May 25, 2007
By Carl Hulse
WASHINGTON, May 24 — Congress voted Thursday to meet President Bush’s demand for almost $100 billion to pay for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan through September, providing a momentary truce in a bitter struggle over war policy.
Even before the House and the Senate acted, Mr. Bush welcomed the legislation, which does not set the timetable sought by Democrats for withdrawing troops but requires the Iraqi government to meet a series of benchmarks as a condition of receiving further American reconstruction aid.
The measure also calls for reports from Mr. Bush in July and September about how his strategy is unfolding in Iraq and requires independent assessments of the performance of the Iraqi government by Sept. 1 and the abilities of Iraqi military forces within 120 days.
“As it provides vital funds for our troops, this bill also reflects a consensus that the Iraqi government needs to show real progress in return for America’s continued support and sacrifice,” Mr. Bush said at a White House news conference on Thursday morning.
The Senate, on a vote of 80 to 14, quickly followed the House’s approval and sent the measure to the White House, ending a months-long impasse between the Bush administration and Democrats who took control of Congress in January.
The action came at a time when Americans view the war in Iraq more negatively than at any time since the invasion more than four years ago, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll. Still, the poll found that a majority of Americans supported continuing to finance the war as long as the Iraqi government met specific goals.
In the House, the war money was supported mainly by Republicans on a 280-to-142 vote. A majority of the House Democrats — 140 — voted against it while 86 supported it.
Many House Democrats were dissatisfied with how the dispute with the White House was resolved, and their party leadership was under fire for the concession to the president on a troop withdrawal timetable. But leading Democrats said they had little choice but to send the money to the Pentagon or risk being accused of abandoning troops in the field.
“Like it or not, we ran out of options,” said Representative David R. Obey, Democrat of Wisconsin and chairman of the Appropriations Committee. “There has never been a chance of a snowball in Hades that Congress would cut off those funds to those troops in the field.”
Showing the political implications of the vote, three Senate Democrats seeking the party’s presidential nomination — Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Barack Obama of Illinois — were among the 14 Democrats who opposed the war spending bill. Another Democratic candidate, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, supported it.
Mrs. Clinton said she had thought “very long and hard” about the vote, because she wanted to ensure that “we do everything we can to protect our troops.”
She dismissed the idea that it could be used against her politically as evidence of abandoning the troops. “The president has resisted every effort by not just the political process, but by independent experts like the Iraq Study Group, to change course,” she said. “And enough is enough.”
Under a deal that made possible the vote on war spending, the House also voted Thursday on a package that included the first increase in the federal minimum wage in more than a decade and $17 billion in domestic spending on veterans and military health care, Gulf Coast hurricane recovery, farm aid and children’s health care. This bill was approved overwhelmingly — 348 to 73 — with strong support from both parties.
The added spending drove the total cost of both bills, which were combined into one bill for a Senate vote, to just under $120 billion.
Democrats in the House and Senate promised to renew the push for a timetable for Iraq withdrawal in other bills on Pentagon spending and policy. And the House, as part of its consideration of the money, set a framework for another round of votes in the fall on troop withdrawal and overturning the original authority for the war.
“This debate will go on,” promised Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who voted against the war money and described the new benchmarks as token restrictions.
While many Democrats joined Ms. Pelosi in dismissing the benchmarks as inconsequential because any withholding of aid could be waived by the president, other senators said the conditions and the new reporting requirements were significant and could force a serious review of administration strategy as early as July.
“This legislation will not only ensure that our troops get the funding that they need for training, for equipment, for other essential purposes, this legislation is also about accountability and consequences,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, a co-author of the approach, which was written chiefly by Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia.
But to many House Democrats, the new conditions represented a failure by their party to fulfill the promise of the November victory that gave them control of Congress. “The American people voted us into power for one reason,” said Representative Lynn Woolsey, Democrat of California. “They trusted us to hold this administration accountable and to bring our troops home.”
The fight over the money began in earnest on Feb. 5, when Mr. Bush requested the Pentagon financing and urged Democrats to deliver a bill without restrictions. But Democrats sought to use the “power of the purse” to push him toward beginning a withdrawal of combat troops.
The first spending measure, approved last month, would have ordered a withdrawal beginning Oct. 1. The president vetoed that measure on May 1 — the fourth anniversary of the speech about Iraq that he delivered aboard an aircraft carrier before a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished.”
The House then passed a bill that would have provided the Pentagon money in stages, requiring more votes for future installments. After that approach went nowhere in the Senate, Democrats and the White House entered negotiations that produced the legislation being considered in the hours before Congress left town for a Memorial Day break.
“Thank goodness we are finally here,” said Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader, who choked up on the House floor as he discussed the responsibility of Congress to finance the military and fight terrorism. “We have no artificial deadlines, no surrender dates, no shackles on our generals and our troops on the ground.”
He and other Republicans accused Democrats of slowing the money to score political points at the expense of the military. “Three and a half months to respond to our troops and their families is too long,” said Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri, the No. 2 House Republican.
In the Senate, some antiwar Democrats joined their counterparts in the House in vowing to oppose the legislation.
“It’s wrong for Congress to continue to defer to a presidential decision that we know is fatally flawed,” said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts. He voted against the compromise even though it contained the increase in the minimum wage that he had long pursued. “It’s wrong to abdicate our responsibility by allowing this war to drag on and on while our casualties mount higher and higher.”
But others from both parties portrayed the Iraq benchmark provisions as an important step toward reaching consensus on how, according to Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire, “we’re going to draw down troops in Iraq and make sure that in that drawdown we maintain stability of the government and also the security of our nation.”
Senator Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, said the benchmarks would ensure that the Iraqi government understood it must stabilize the country both politically and militarily. “As our men and women are there dying and fighting for the preservation of a democracy, it is not too much to expect that the Iraqi government take a greater role in this endeavor,” he said.
Representative C. W. Bill Young, Republican of Florida, said neither Democrats nor Republicans should rush to claim victory with the end of the dispute. “The victory goes to the members of our military who are going to have the funding they need,” he said. Robin Toner contributed reporting.