Defying a fresh veto threat, the Democratic-controlled Congress will pass legislation within days requiring the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq beginning Oct. 1, with a goal of completing the pullout six months later, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Monday.
Reid said the legislation "immediately transitions the U.S. military away from policing a civil war." He said that troops that remain in Iraq after next April 1 could only train Iraqi security units, protect U.S forces and conduct "targeted counter-terror operations."
The Nevada Democrat outlined the elements of the legislation in a speech a few hours after Bush said he will reject any legislation along the lines of what Democrats intend to pass. "I will strongly reject an artificial timetable (for) withdrawal and/or Washington politicians trying to tell those who wear the uniform how to do their job," the president said.
Bush made his comments to reporters in the Oval Office as he met with senior military leaders, including his top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.
Taken together, Reid's speech and Bush's comments inaugurated a
week of extraordinary confrontation between the president and the
new Democratic-controlled Congress over a war that has taken the
lives of more than 3,200 U.S. troops.
Negotiators for the House and Senate arranged a late-afternoon meeting to ratify the timetable that Reid laid out. The demand for a change in course will be attached to a funding bill that is needed to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Under an agreement by Democratic leaders, the final bill could trigger the withdrawal of U.S. troops as early as July 1 if Bush cannot certify that the Iraqi government is making progress in disarming militias, reducing sectarian violence and forging political compromises.
The bill also would withhold foreign aid money if the Iraqi government does not meet certain benchmarks.
As part of the same measure, congressional negotiators also tentatively agreed on about $25 billion not requested by Bush for medical care for troops and veterans, aid to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, farm disaster relief and other programs.
The add-ons have provoked a separate veto threat from Bush. Negotiators dropped provisions ridiculed by the president such as aid to peanut farmers and spinach producers.
Reid said Bush was in "a state of denial" over the war, and likened him to another commander in chief four decades ago. "I remember when President Johnson, trying to save his political legacy, initiated the first of many surges into Vietnam in 1965," he said.
Reid said thousands more U.S. troops died in Vietnam in the years that followed. Now, he said, Bush "is the only person who fails to face this war's reality - and that failure is devastating not just for Iraq's future, but for ours."
Reid had made similar comments at a White House meeting last week among Bush and top lawmakers, and this time, the president's spokeswoman fired back. She said it was Reid who was ignoring reality, not the president.
Reid is in denial about the vicious nature of the enemy and about the U.S.-led plan to provide more security in Iraq, said deputy press secretary Dana Perino. "He's also in denial that a surrender date - he thinks it is a good idea. It is not a good idea. It is defeat. It is a death sentence for the millions of Iraqis who voted for a constitution, who voted for a government, who voted for a free and Democratic society."
In a question and answer session after his speech, Reid was asked what the U.S. should do if U.S. troops leave and Iraq collapses into chaos.
"We know this is an intractable civil war going on now," he responded.
Reid drew criticism from Bush and others last week when he said the war in Iraq had been lost.
The Nevada Democrat did not repeat the assertion in his prepared speech, saying that "The military mission has long since been accomplished. The failure has been political. It has been policy. It has been presidential."
Reid said that in addition to the timetable, the legislation will establish standards for the Iraqi government to meet in terms of "making progress on security, political reconciliation and improving the lives of ordinary Iraqis who have suffered so much."
The measure also would launch diplomatic, economic and political policy changes, the Nevada Democrat said.
Reid also challenged Bush to present an alternative if, as expected, he vetoes the Democratic legislation.
The president said that Petraeus will go to Capitol Hill to tell lawmakers what's going right in Iraq - and what's not.
"It's a tough time, as the general will tell Congress," Bush said. Still, the president insisted, progress is being made in Iraq as more U.S. troops head into the country to provide security.
There is no doubt that Republicans in Congress have the votes to sustain Bush's threatened veto.
That would require Congress to approve a second funding bill quickly to avoid significant disruptions in military operations.
Reid's speech blended an attack on Bush, an appeal for patience to the anti-war voters who last fall gave Democrats control, and an attempt to shape the post-veto debate.
"I understand the restlessness that some feel. Many who voted for change in November anticipated dramatic and immediate results in January," he said.
"But like it or not, George W. Bush is still the commander in chief - and this is his war," Reid said.
Reid said Democrats have sought Republican support for their attempts to force Bush to change course. "Only the president is the odd man out, and he is making the task even harder by demanding absolute fidelity from his party."
Looking beyond Bush's expected veto, he said, "If the president disagrees, let him come to us with an alternative. Instead of sending us back to square one with a veto, some tough talk and nothing more, let him come to the table in the spirit of bipartisanship that Americans demand and deserve."
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)