Can Bush, Congress Find Middle Ground on Iraq?

As Congress's Iraq war funding bill heads to President Bush for a promised veto, various scenarios emerge. Is there room for some sort of compromise between the president and Congress on the question of troop pullouts?

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This coming week, Congress enters phase two of its showdown with President Bush over funding for the war in Iraq. The president has promised to veto the funding measure Congress approved last week because it includes a timetable to begin withdrawing troops form Iraq this year.

The House will try to override the veto, but is expected to fail. Lawmakers are already talking about what's next. Joining us now is NPR's Brian Naylor to tell us what he's been hearing.

President Bush has said, again and again and again, that he is going to veto anything that has a timetable. So where does that leave the Democrats?

BRIAN NAYLOR: Well, things are, kind of, up in the air. On the one hand, Democrats seem to be standing their ground. At a news conference on Friday, Majority Leader Harry Reid urged the president to sign the bill. But that's not going to happen, and Democrats know that. So Reid and the Democrats are also looking for some kind of a sign that the president is willing to compromise a little bit. And so at that news conference, Reid quoted the White House Spokeswoman Dana Perino.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): The president's chief spokesperson, Dana Perino, yesterday said words, "the president is going to this bill, and then he looks forward to sitting down and talking a bipartisan group of congressional leaders to craft a bill that he can sign." These are buzzwords for saying the president's changed his tune.

NAYLOR: So that may be a little bit of wishful thinking on Reid's part. But behind closed doors, the Democrats are mulling their options and there are at least three of them. One is to send him a clean bill that's, you know, a measure without any of the timetables or goals or benchmarks, just the money for the war. But Democratic sources say that's the least likely scenario, because so many Democrats want the war to end now and feel they public opinion on their side.

At the other end of the spectrum is to - as one aide told me - change two words in the bill, you know, make a cosmetic change and send it back to him. And he'll veto it, send it back, just keep going back and forth like that. But I don't think either of those options, frankly, are very likely.

NEARY: So what other options are there then?

NAYLOR: Well, the one what you keep hearing is benchmarks - fund the war but attach some strings, call on the Iraqi government to make progress in uniting the sectarian groups, cracking down on the militias - that sort of thing. And this is an idea that has some Republican support. For instance, Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine says she has introduced a bill that she says represents a consensus.

Senator OLYMPIA SNOWE (Republican, Maine): It says within 120 days, which is essentially in tandem with the surge by September, within 120 days, if the Maliki government - the Council of Representatives - cannot accomplish the political benchmarks that are essential and pivotal to national reconciliation, then we begin a phased withdrawal.

NEARY: But Brian, if the president has been saying so empathically that he won't support a bill with a timetable for withdrawing troops, will he support benchmarks?

NAYLOR: Well, it's a good question. It's not clear. He might if the benchmarks weren't tied to a timetable to withdraw the troops, but to say economic aid for Iraq. But Democrats frankly don't know what the president will accept and that's why they'll be watching his veto message this week very closely. They're hoping that he send some kind of signal about what he will accept.

NEARY: So, anything else that the Democrats can look at here?

NAYLOR: Well, the other option that is being talked about would be to send the president a bill that funds the war for just a short period of time, 60 days or so. That's an option followed by Pennsylvania Democrat, John Murtha, who's become one of leading anti-war voices in Congress. So the president then would have to come back to Congress and ask for yet more money in the few more months to keep the war going.

And Democrats who feel they already have public sentiment behind them, maybe two months from now they'll have even more. But all of these options are just trial balloons at this point. Everyone here I've talked with says no one knows what the next move is just yet. But they do know they want to get this done by the end of May before Congress takes its Memorial Day recess.

NEARY: NPR's Brian Naylor. Thanks, Brian.

NAYLOR: Thanks, Lynn.

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