WASHINGTON — Seeking to end the partisan standoff over funding the war in Iraq, politically moderate senators from both parties pressed their efforts Thursday to find a compromise that could put new requirements on the Iraqi government without holding up money for U.S. troops.
At least seven GOP lawmakers are involved in the talks, which come as congressional Republicans are increasingly looking to distance themselves from President Bush's unpopular management of the war.
At the same time, Bush signaled a new willingness to compromise with Congress over the terms of a war funding bill, saying he would accept benchmarks for the Iraqi government as part of an agreement.
He had previously rejected any conditions in the funding bill.
The negotiations were unfolding as many congressional Democrats continued to demand a more immediate end to the war.
In the House, 171 lawmakers voted for a bill Thursday that would have required the president to begin withdrawing troops in three months and complete the withdrawal in nine months.
But 59 Democrats, including Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), joined 196 Republicans to defeat it.
House Democrats succeeded Thursday in passing an emergency war spending bill that authorizes $43 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through July.
The bill would make future funding contingent on progress reports indicating that the Iraqi government is reaching political reconciliation among the country's sectarian blocs.
The 221-205 vote was largely along party lines.
But Bush -- who last month vetoed a Democratic spending bill that would have compelled him to withdraw troops -- has indicated he will also veto any measure that parcels out war funding in installments.
"There's a lot of uncertainty in funding when it comes to two-month cycles. So we reject that idea," he said at the Pentagon after a briefing with the brass. "I'll veto the bill if it's this haphazard piecemeal funding."
With limited Democratic support in the Senate, it appears unlikely the House proposal will make much headway.
Instead, as congressional Democrats race to send a bill to the president by Memorial Day, the focus has turned to Senate efforts to involve moderate Republicans.
"We need 11 Republican senators," said Assistant Senate Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), calculating that would give Democrats the 60 votes needed to overcome a GOP filibuster. "With 11 Republican senators, we can change this war."
Democrats must pass war spending bills in the House and Senate; then a conference committee would reconcile differences. The two chambers would vote again on the conference report.
On Thursday, Sens. Olympia J. Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine, and Evan Bayh, a moderate Democrat from Indiana, unveiled a plan to link troop withdrawal and Iraqi government benchmarks.
Under their plan, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, would have to begin planning a withdrawal unless the Iraqi government made progress on efforts to share oil wealth across the country, disarm sectarian militias, and otherwise reduce violence between Sunnis and Shiites.
"We cannot continue to countenance political intransigence on the part of the Iraqi government while our men and women are on the front lines," said Snowe, reflecting the frustration of many lawmakers from both parties over the slow pace of political reconciliation in Iraq.
At the same time, Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and John W. Warner of Virginia have been talking to Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a moderate who frequently works with GOP lawmakers, about tying continued U.S. reconstruction aid to the same benchmarks.
Collins and Warner backed an earlier nonbinding resolution opposing the White House plan to increase troop levels in Iraq.
Republican Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, both of whom face tough reelection fights, have also talked to Democrats about compromise Iraq legislation.
Meanwhile, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has joined with Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) on legislation they plan to introduce that expresses support for a reduction in military backing for the Iraqi government if it fails to meet certain milestones.
"This offers a way to get us out of the combat business," said Alexander, who has not been involved in previous efforts to wind down the war.
Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Gordon H. Smith (R-Ore.) have voted for Democratic measures that would set a timeline for withdrawal, making them likely votes for bipartisan bills.
The prospects for all these efforts remain unclear.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has managed his party's antiwar effort in the chamber, is still withholding his endorsement of any of the plans under discussion.
"There is not a thing off the table," Reid said Thursday.
There have been no similar bipartisan efforts in the House, where partisan tensions are historically much higher.