DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.
As the casualties mount in Iraq, the U.S. Congress and President Bush offered a standoff over funding the war. The president is planning to veto legislation approved by Congress this week that attaches timelines for the withdrawal of U.S. troops to funding. The Democrats do not have enough votes to override the veto.
Yesterday, President Bush indicated he'd like to see some sort of compromise. To find out where Democrats and Republicans might find common ground, I spoke earlier today with two members of the House - first, Democrat John Tanner of Tennessee. I asked him if House Democrats would be willing to eliminate all mention of timelines.
Representative JOHN TANNER (Democrat, Tennessee): I think, how you define the timeline is important here, now, when we go into the second round, and that is if the timeline is one of goals that the Iraqis must meet by a certain date. That's far different than a requirement on our own military commanders. As a military guy myself, I don't think that's wise for Congress to do.
ELLIOTT: Let me just make sure I understand what you're saying. You're saying that it's important to have dates for certain goals…
Rep. TANNER: Goals that the Iraqis must make…
ELLIOTT: …that the Iraqis should make. But you…
Rep. TANNER: …but what I think…
ELLIOTT: …but you don't think…
Rep. TANNER: …but I should I say…
ELLIOTT: …that there should be specific dates that U.S. troops should come out.
Rep. TANNER: That we will, at least, consider redeployment out of the streets of Baghdad if they don't perform certain goals.
ELLIOTT: Are you saying that if you change the language from a hard troop pullout date and just say, we consider redeployment of troops if you don't meet these goals, do you think that's something that Republicans would accept?
Rep. TANNER: Well, I would hope so. The military has won a war. It's our refusal that will hold the Iraqi's civilian leadership that we put in into elections accountable for their government.
ELLIOTT: But I think that some Democrats believe that the only way to put that pressure is by attaching some, sort of, a fixed date. Do you think you're going to be able to get compromise legislation that does not include that?
Rep. TANNER: I think there'll have to be some dates that may be will waivable(ph). That's a date to the Iraqis but it's not a date to us. I think that's a legitimate way to go about this.
ELLIOTT: You know, the commander in the field, General David Petraeus, has said that he and Defense Secretary Gates will be assessing progress in Iraq come September. Why not just wait until then, you know? It might emerge from their assessment that pulling out and setting benchmarks at this point is the wrong thing to do.
Rep. TANNER: Well, I think that's probably a matter of legitimate discussion in this next round, to be honest with you.
ELLIOTT: Is there some wiggle room here, as far as the $21 billion of extra spending that Congress added in this bill? You know, the administration has characterized it as pork.
Rep. TANNER: Well, they've taken some of it out already. Some of it is legitimate agricultural emergency spending…
ELLIOTT: But would you…
Rep. TANNER: …some of it - none of it was in there to be truthful.
ELLIOTT: When congressional Democrats go to the White House next week or wherever they're going to meet, what do you think the bottom line is that the president will hear from Democrats about this issue?
Rep. TANNER: That there has to be a substantive message sent to the Iraqis whether it is a waivable timeline, whether it's a goal, there has to be some substantive change in our strategy in terms of how the Iraqis perceive what's going on in Washington and how everyone gets there is, I think, that's the bottom line the Democrats will probably insist on.
ELLIOTT: Congressman John Tanner of Tennessee is a chief deputy whip for the Democrats. Thank you for speaking with us, sir.
Rep. TANNER: Thank you very much.
ELLIOTT: Congressman Ray LaHood, Republican of Illinois, joins us now from member station WCBU in Peoria. Thank you for being on the program, sir.
Representative RAY LaHOOD (Republican, Illinois): Thank you.
ELLIOTT: When members of Congress sit down to start to negotiate this bill after the president's veto, where do you think you're going to find common ground?
Rep. LaHOOD: Getting the money to the troops and making sure that the benchmarks that have been set by President Bush and General Petraeus are clear in the sense that we know that they'll be a report in September.
ELLIOTT: We spoke earlier with one of your colleagues, a Democrat, Congressman Tanner, and he suggested that the Democrats might be willing to compromise on the language of the bill, saying something like the U.S. would consider redeploying its troops from Iraq if the Iraqi government failed to meet certain goals to promote national reconciliation. Would that language be acceptable to Republicans in the House?
Rep. LaHOOD: Well, I think not. I think at this point, we want to give every advantage we can to General Petraeus, to the men and women that are doing the hard work everyday and in particular, to Prime Minister Maliki. And I think what we ought to do is pass a bill that will allow for the money for our troops and then look very carefully at what General Petraeus can tell us in September.
ELLIOTT: Back in February, you said that Iraqis need to continue to take control of the security situation. You said, we will provide additional manpower and resources to calm the violence, but it's time for the Iraqi government to take bold action. That was February, now it's almost May. Are you seeing the kind of action that you'd hoped for?
Rep. LaHOOD: I think the difference between now and February is that we're sending 20,000 more troops there - six per dates. We have new people. We have new players. We have more military. And now I think…
ELLIOTT: But that's only with U.S. side. You said the Iraqi government needs to take bold action, do you think that's happening?
Rep. LaHOOD: I think they're trying. And I think we're going to help them even more with the effort that's being put forth now. This period of time, between now and September, is the most critical period of time since we've in Iraq.
ELLIOTT: Why is it so hard to talk about what the consequences should be if the Iraqi government does not make progress?
Rep. LaHOOD: Look, we know that the Iraqi government is having a difficult time. Maliki is having a difficult time. They're having a difficult time getting the oil fields open. They're having a difficult time getting the insurgency under control in Baghdad. They need our help. To put any more undue pressure on this government at this time, I think, is not fair. And I believe that's the reason that leadership is resistant to those kind of benchmarks.
ELLIOTT: Administration officials seemed to be dampening expectations of the progress in Iraq. When General Petraeus briefed Congress this past week, he said something like Prime Minister Maliki isn't Tony Blair. Do you think that Republican members of Congress are willing to be as patient with the Iraqi government as the administration has been?
Rep. LaHOOD: I think the patience of all members of the House and Senate is wearing thin. Not only patience of the American people, but I think that is reflected in the members of Congress.
ELLIOTT: Congressman Ray LaHood, Republican of Illinois. We spoke with him from Peoria. Thank you so much, sir.
Rep. LaHOOD: Thank you very much.
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