With a presidential veto threat looming over the congressional debate, the Senate is expected to vote Thursday on a $124 billion bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
Wednesday's House debate was a reprise of what lawmakers from both parties have been saying about the bill.
The debate came after one of the worst periods for U.S. casualties in the war, including the deaths of nine members of the 82nd Airborne this week. That's the unit Rep. Patrick Murphy, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, served with when he was in Iraq.
"Now we have nine more paratroopers to add to this list," Murphy said Wednesday. "How many more suicide bombs must kill American soldiers before this president offers a timeline for our troops to come home?"
The timeline the Democrats have proposed calls for U.S. forces to be out of Iraq by the spring of 2008. It's a non-binding goal. But it does say that unless the Iraqi government meets a set of benchmarks, those troops would have to begin coming home as soon as July.
Rep. David Drier, a Republican from California, belittled the bill, saying it "implements a policy of failure."
"It's nothing more than a cheap attempt to score political points at a time the American people have understandably become very weary of war," Drier said.
Another Republican from California, Rep. Jerry Lewis, said the bill sends a bad message to American adversaries.
"Al-Qaida will view this legislation as the first sign of the United States backing down from its commitment to the war on terror," he warned. "It will view the withdrawal provisions ... as America signaling retreat and surrender."
The 218-to-208 House vote went largely along party lines, coming a few hours after Gen. David Petraeus held a closed-door briefing for lawmakers about the situation in Iraq. That briefing clearly changed few minds. The outcome of Wednesday night's vote was nearly identical to the vote on a similar measure a month ago.
Petraeus met with reporters after the briefings, offering a positive view of his conversations with lawmakers and noting that sectarian killings in Bagdhad are down since January. But the news was not all good.
"The ability of al-Qaida to conduct horrific sensational attacks obviously has represented a setback," Petraeus said. "This is an area in which we are focusing considerable attention as you might imagine."
Asked whether he urged lawmakers to refrain from approving a withdrawal timetable, Petraeus said he did not want to get into the minefield of legislative proposals. In the debate Wednesday night, Rep. John Murtha, the Democrat from Pennsylvania, said what is happening in Iraq is not the military's fault.
"This war has been so mismanaged that we have the responsibility to force the White House to be accountable," Murtha said. "The policy is not set by the military. The policy is set by the White House and we have to hold the White House accountable for the mistakes they have made."
The White House issued a statement calling the legislation disappointing, but asking the Senate to quickly approve the measure so it can be sent to the president for his promised veto.
Senate appproval is expected Thursday. The measure could be on the president's desk early next week.
Congress will then try to override the veto. It seems an unlikely prospect, and if Congress cannot push this legislation through, hard bargaining will begin over the form of a war-funding bill that is acceptable to both sides.