WASHINGTON — After clashing for weeks, President Bush and congressional Democratic leaders will sit down in private Wednesday to see whether compromise is possible on the next steps in funding the war in Iraq.
The meeting will come at a time when U.S. losses are high. April could be one of the deadliest months of the war, with at least 58 service members killed so far as of Monday. While additional American troops have helped bring down violence in Baghdad since January, it's increased in other areas of the country.
In public on Monday, the president and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., took hard bargaining positions on whether the United States should declare the beginning of a withdrawal as part of the latest war-funding legislation. Compromise seemed unlikely.
Democrats also were trying to work out differences between the House and Senate versions of the war-spending bill so that they can get it to the president's desk within two weeks.
If troop-withdrawal terms remain in the legislation and Bush vetoes it, as he promises, Democrats will have to find another way to try to bring U.S. military involvement in Iraq to an end, possibly by insisting in the next version of the bill that the Iraqi government meet certain benchmarks for progress, with a loss of military or economic aid as the consequence of failure.
Reid said Monday that an emphasis on benchmarks was possible if there were a veto, adding: "The president is not going to get a bill that has nothing on it. It would be wrong for this legislative branch of government to capitulate to this wrongheaded policy that the vice president and the president have been leading."
The White House hasn't publicly pushed Iraq's government to make progress toward a political settlement, arguing that Iraq can't find a political solution until the violence abates.
Bush and his supporters say a planned U.S. withdrawal would amount to defeat and encourage terrorists. Democrats argue that American forces can't end a civil war and a withdrawal plan puts pressure on the Iraqi government to work harder to end the sectarian violence.
In a speech Monday from the East Room of the White House, the president said he expected to "talk out our differences" Wednesday. He said he'd discuss "any way forward that does not hamstring our troops, set an artificial timetable for withdrawal and spend billions on projects not related to the war."
The House version would require most U.S. forces to withdraw by the end of August 2008. The Senate version calls for a withdrawal to begin this summer and sets a nonbinding goal of getting most forces out by next March 31.
Some U.S. forces would remain to train Iraqis and fight terrorists. Both versions of the bill add about $20 billion beyond what the president requested, including $4.3 billion for military and veterans' health care. Congress also added nonmilitary spending, including hurricane relief, health insurance for poor children and agricultural subsidies.
Democrats said the president was isolated and that his war policy had failed.
"The president continues to push for a war without end, while the American people believe it is time for a new direction," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Monday. "Democrats want to work together with the president to responsibly bring this war to an end."
Reid said his only offer Wednesday would be "that the president sign our bill. ... We're going to send the president a bill that has timetables in it."
Speaking with Reid at a news conference, retired Lt. Gen. Robert G. Gard Jr., who earned a Ph.D. in government at Harvard, served in Vietnam and was an assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara during that war, said Americans had lost the support of the Iraqi people and that there are too few U.S. troops to protect the Iraqis and isolate them from the insurgents.
"What we're doing is counterproductive. It is detrimental to our national security," Gard said.
He said Iraq today was reminiscent of a U.S. surge to Vietnam of 20,000 more troops in March 1965.
"At that point there had been 24,000 battle deaths in Vietnam. But because the president didn't want to be tarred with losing a war, we continued on for five more years and 34,000 more combat deaths, with an outcome we could have achieved at the time of the surge," Gard said. "We're at a turning point like that now."