WASHINGTON — President Bush vetoed a Democratic war spending bill Tuesday that would have compelled him to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, a move that came exactly four years after he triumphantly landed on an aircraft carrier to announce the end of "major combat operations."
"Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a date for failure, and that would be irresponsible," Bush said.
On a day rich with symbolism, the president fulfilled his veto threat in the White House's main hall, hours after the House and Senate majority leaders sent Bush the legislation after a rare signing ceremony of their own.
Democrats condemned Bush's action and accused him of misrepresenting their legislation.
"If the president thinks by vetoing this bill he'll stop us from working to change the direction of the war in Iraq, he is mistaken," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
The veto -- the second of Bush's presidency and the first since Democrats assumed power in January -- closed one chapter in the showdown between Congress and the president over the future of the war. And it opened another as Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill scrambled to chart their next moves.
Democratic leaders are weighing a new spending bill that would remove the timelines Bush has complained about but retain a series of benchmarks designed to pressure the Iraqi government to take steps to reduce sectarian strife.
The $124-billion measure to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would have required Bush to begin withdrawing troops no later than Oct. 1, with a goal of completing the pullout by March.
Republicans -- uneasy with their president but opposed to a withdrawal plan -- appear increasingly willing to back some form of benchmarks, although party leaders would not discuss specifics. GOP lawmakers in the past have balked at any benchmarks that would include deadlines or consequences for missing them.
The fourth anniversary of one of the most theatrical moments of the Bush presidency was dominated by a battle for control of imagery between the president and his congressional adversaries.
Bush left Washington in the morning on Air Force One to spend the day at the military's Central Command in Tampa, Fla., the nerve center of U.S. operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East.
White House officials said the trip had no connection to the anniversary of Bush's 2003 speech, which he delivered on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln off San Diego -- in front of sailors and pilots and an enormous, now infamous, banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished."
At that time, 139 Americans had died in Iraq and two-thirds of Americans approved of the president's job performance. Since then, 3,213 more service members have died in Iraq and only a third of the public thinks Bush is doing a good job.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino testily reminded reporters that the president never actually said "mission accomplished."
"That speech has been widely misconstrued," she said.
But on a day when a steady stream of congressional Democrats took to lecterns on the House and Senate floors to ridicule the speech, Bush's schedule seemed designed to showcase his role as commander in chief.
After landing at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, the president received a briefing from top commanders. He delivered remarks to representatives of countries who have forces in Iraq. And he held private meetings with families of military personnel killed in the war.
"Failure in Iraq should be unacceptable to the civilized world," Bush told the allied military officers, linking the "war on terrorism" to the 20th century fights against fascism and communism.
Al Qaeda terrorists "murder the innocent to advance a focused and clear ideology," he said. "They seek to establish a radical Islamic caliphate so they can impose a brutal new order on unwilling people, much as Nazis and communists sought to do in the last century."
Bush acknowledged that sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims had forced the United States to increase troop levels in Iraq. But he said gains in the region were evident, citing successes in breaking up terrorist networks. And he expressed optimism that the turmoil would give way to historic progress.
"I believe that one day future generations will look back at this time ... and they will be awed by what our coalition has helped to build," Bush said.
While Bush was casting himself in a Churchillian role in his Florida appearance, his congressional opponents staged their own theater in Washington.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Reid called television cameras to one of Pelosi's ornate rooms in the Capitol for a ceremony to officially complete action on the spending bill passed by the House and Senate last week, an event that usually goes unheralded.