Bush And Congress Return To The Iraq Drawing Board

President Bush and congressional leaders met yesterday following a day of drama and stagecraft that ended in the president's veto of the $124 billion Iraq war-funding bill.

"It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing," the president said, referring to the timetable for withdrawal that Congress placed in the bill. "All terrorists would have to do is mark their calendars." He said the bill would have set "a deadline for failure."

In response, leaders of the Democratic majority in Congress said the country has turned against the war and that it was time for the Iraqis to take over their own country.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared that Congress would no longer give Bush a "blank check" for Iraq.

Congress probably will try to pass a bill containing nonbinding "benchmarks" for the Iraq government to meet, such as reducing sectarian violence and approving a system for distributing oil revenue to competing factions. It's unclear whether Bush will accept this approach.

What is certain is that the PR battle will continue.

It was on full display on Veto Day. The Democrats sent Bush the bill on the fourth anniversary of his standing on the deck of aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, in front of a giant "Mission Accomplished" sign, and declaring that "major combat operations" in Iraq were over. Realizing the timing problem, the White House responded by having Bush travel in the morning to MacDill Air Force Base outside Tampa, Fla., to meet with Central Command leaders and surround himself with troops. He wanted to make the point that he is on the side of the military and suggest that the Democrats may not be.

The MacDill gambit didn't crowd out the TV images of Bush's controversial "Mission Accomplished" moment. But White House strategists had something else up their sleeves--having Bush veto the bill on his return to the White House and make a nationally televised statement of resolve. It was just in time for the evening news.

By Kenneth T. Walsh