Democratic leaders are loath to acknowledge they’ve backed off, but lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, as well as congressional aides, say Democrats are trying to find a way to provide continued troop funding while searching for some compromises that show they’re still intent on challenging the president on the war.
The possible conditions for troop funding include anti-torture rules and benchmarks for Iraqi political reconciliation, language sure to upset an impatient Democratic anti-war base that wants immediate troop withdrawals.
According to one senior Democratic lawmaker, there’s a growing discomfort among pro-defense Democrats about linking a $50 billion Iraq measure to troop withdrawal.
“We have to come off this lack of funding for the military operations,” the lawmaker said. “We have to continue the funding. We don’t want to look like we’re against troop funding. ... We should separate the funding discussion from the rest of the war.”
A troop withdrawal funding bill received 53 votes last month in the Senate, seven short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster.
So Democrats are searching for something that asserts congressional power but doesn’t necessarily have a mandated troop withdrawal.
“I am advocating as strong a statement as we can get 60 votes for,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.).
Additionally, lawmakers who represent areas with large military bases fear that layoff notices could go out to civilian military employees just a week before Christmas if the Pentagon has to pull money from other accounts to pay for the war.
“The turmoil caused by shuffling the money is making some people uncomfortable,” said Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, chairman of the House Republican Conference.
President Bush, backed by enough votes on Capitol Hill to uphold any vetoes, has given Congress an ultimatum: Provide at least $50 billion for Iraq with no conditions, and wrap up the domestic spending bills by Christmas.
Democrats, of course, could ignore the White House, pass a troop withdrawal measure and punt everything into next year after a veto.
Still, aides to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) insisted on Wednesday that the Senate would vote on a troop funding bill that contains the same withdrawal language that passed the House last month.
In the House, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) seemed flustered Wednesday when pressed about whether Democrats would provide Iraq money with no strings attached.
“There’s no doubt the troops will be funded,” Hoyer told reporters. “We believe that technically, the troops are funded right now.”
But Hoyer wasn’t ready to declare that troop withdrawal language would be taken out. “That’s not a given,” he said.
While Democrats scramble to find ways to end this congressional session with action on Iraq funding, as well as on 11 other domestic spending bills, Republicans are taking their cues from the White House and see no reason to give in.
“The first priority is a no-strings-attached bill for the troops,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who’s set to become the No. 2 ranking GOP leader in the Senate on Thursday when he’s elected minority whip.
All the harsh talk aside, there were signs of potential breakthroughs on Wednesday.
Two top White House officials — Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and Budget Director Jim Nussle — huddled on Capitol Hill with Reid and other top Democrats.
A White House aide said no deal was imminent, but when top White House officials meet with the opposition party in December, it’s usually a sign that one’s in the works.
“We’re just reterating our positions,” said Sean Kevelighan, a spokesman for Nussle. “I wouldn’t characterize it as negotiations. ... [Democrats will] realize our positions are reasonable.”
While Democrats search for different ways to combine the war funding bill with their domestic spending measures, Republicans appear increasingly confident with their position.
And they know that Democrats also gave in earlier this year after Bush vetoed an Iraq funding bill that had a troop withdrawal deadline.
“When the war was going poorly and there was great opposition to the surge, at the end of the day, the funding was there,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “Now, the surge is succeeding; the war is going better. Why would we not continue the funding?”
Daniel W. Reilly contributed to this story.