WASHINGTON — Fresh from passing the first timelines to bring home U.S. troops from Iraq, congressional Democrats now face the daunting task of reconciling critical differences between a Senate withdrawal plan passed Thursday and one approved by the House last week.
The Senate's timeline -- part of the $123-billion war spending bill that passed 51 to 47, largely along party lines -- would require President Bush to begin withdrawing troops within 120 days of enactment and would set March 31, 2008, as a nonbinding "goal" to have most combat forces out of Iraq.
The House plan would require the president to begin withdrawing troops as soon as July 1 and to complete the process no later than August 2008.
The measures have prompted repeated veto threats from President Bush, who says he won't sign legislation that limits what military commanders can do in Iraq.
Democratic lawmakers are gearing up for a high-stakes showdown with the president.
But they must first reach a compromise among themselves, a process that will play out over the next several weeks. Lawmakers from both chambers must draw up language that wins House and Senate approval before the resulting bill can go to the president's desk.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) have played down the differences between their plans as they present a united front against the White House.
Reid insisted Thursday that the two Democratic-controlled chambers would have few problems reaching a compromise that could pass the House and Senate.
"We don't have a gap to overcome," he said. "The ball is in the president's court. That's who has to make the next move."
There were already signals of the potential complications that lay ahead, however.
Freshman Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) -- a vehement war critic who was among the last liberals to get behind the House measure last week -- said Thursday that he would oppose any bill that did not retain the House's firm timelines.
"The timelines and the deadlines are the only thing that got me to support it," said Ellison, who has called for a quick conclusion to the war. "And even then, that was a stretch."
Under the House plan, Bush would have to certify by July 1 that the Iraqi government was making substantial progress in meeting benchmarks to achieve political reconciliation and reduce sectarian violence. If the president did not, withdrawal would begin immediately and most U.S. combat troops would have to be pulled out by the end of the year.
Even if the Iraqi government met all the benchmarks, troop withdrawals would have to begin no later than March 1, 2008, and be completed by the end of that August.
Key aspect in House
The House plan's absolute deadlines were key to winning the support of staunch antiwar lawmakers, many of whom have complained that Congress has not moved aggressively enough to end the war.
Those lawmakers -- who belong to the Out of Iraq Caucus, which has more than 80 Congress members -- provided the final votes that guaranteed the 218-212 passage last week. And at least one, Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), was promised by Pelosi that House leaders would insist that the timelines remain in any compromise measure with the Senate.
Several Out of Iraq Caucus members, including Ellison, said this week that they were optimistic that Pelosi and her lieutenants would negotiate a compromise they could support.
But Ellison was not the only one to sound a warning.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who had urged his colleagues in the Out of Iraq Caucus to back the bill, cautioned that softening the pullout deadlines would risk defections. "If we substantially weaken the timelines, I'd have a real problem with that," he said.
But restrictive deadlines could cause support to evaporate in the Senate.
Senate Democratic leaders were able to pull together enough votes to pass their spending bill Thursday by omitting a firm deadline for the final withdrawal of combat troops.
Moderate Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, as well as Republican Sens. Gordon H. Smith of Oregon and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, provided the margin of victory.
Nelson has said he can't support a bill setting a firm deadline for withdrawal.
Pryor may also have concerns about tougher deadlines.
He had pushed unsuccessfully to make any withdrawal deadlines secret, out of concern that publicly known timelines would embolden insurgents. And before he voted for the spending measure Thursday, Pryor had backed an amendment to eliminate the timelines.
House and Senate negotiators also will have to reconcile differences in what the two bills fund. The House bill is larger than the Senate's, which increased by $1.5 billion Thursday for more military vehicles.
'Undermining the troops'
Senate Democratic leaders focused their remarks on the White House, challenging Bush to support the funding measure.