WASHINGTON - On the eve of a critical vote, House Democrats labored Thursday
to lock down a majority behind a Sept. 1, 2008, deadline for the withdrawal of
US combat troops from Iraq, the sternest test yet for a determined new majority
eager to challenge President Bush.
"If it comes off, it's a
superb accomplishment," said Rep. Barney Frank , D-Mass., as the party's leaders
cajoled liberals who want an even faster timetable and moderates fearful of
tying the hands of the commander in chief and generals in the field.
A US army soldier from B Company, 1st Battalion, 23rd
Infantry Regiment kicks down a roof door inside a house in west Baghdad's
Ghazaliyah neighborhood, Iraq, Thursday, March 22, 2007. [AP]
Democratic aides expressed growing confidence of success when the vote is
called, and four of the bill's most consistent critics said they had told
Speaker Nancy Pelosi they would help pass it, even though they intend to
personally vote against it.
"While I cannot betray my conscience, I cannot stand in the way of passing a
measure that puts a concrete end date on this unnecessary war," said one of the
four, Rep. Barbara Lee of California.
An aide to Pelosi confirmed the speaker had met with Lee and California Reps.
Lynn Woolsey , Maxine Waters and Diane Watson . But with the leadership lobbying
intensively on its own, it was not clear which lawmakers, if any, had swung
behind the bill as a result of the offer the four had made.
Throughout the day, a string of liberal opponents of the war swung behind a
measure they deemed insufficient.
"I want this war ended today. If I thought it would help this war ending
sooner by voting against the bill, I would vote against it in a heartbeat," said
Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, who sponsored legislation for a troop
withdrawal in 2005.
"But I don't believe that to be the case," he added of the measure, which
combines funding for the war, the troop withdrawal deadline and billions of
dollars in funding for politically popular programs at home ranging from farm
aid to relief for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
The legislation marks Congress' most direct challenge to date of Bush's
policy in a war that has claimed the lives of nearly 3,200 US troops.
As debate began in the House, Republicans criticized it vociferously. "The
bill is a sham," said Rep. Harold Rogers of Kentucky, adding it would "provide
fodder for our enemies abroad."
Bush has threatened to veto the bill, opposing both the troop withdrawal
provision and billions of dollars in spending that Democrats added.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said any delay in approving the funds could
"have a genuinely adverse affect on the readiness of the Army and the quality of
life for soldiers and their families."
White House press secretary Tony Snow sharpened the message. "There's a very
real chance that money for the troops will run out while members of Congress are
on vacation," he said. "Is that the message you want to send to men and women
who are putting their lives on the line?"
Across the Capitol, a Senate committee launched legislation taking a slightly
different approach - setting a date for the beginning of a withdrawal but only a
nonbinding goal of March 31, 2008, for the final exit of combat forces.
The measure cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee on a voice vote, but
Republicans said they would attempt to strip out the withdrawal provisions when
the issue comes before the full Senate next week.