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Analysis: No one loves the Iraq bill, but it staved off newly damaging veto fight

WASHINGTON — The Iraq war funding bill cleared by Congress represents a triumph of divided government, beloved by none, crafted to avoid a protracted veto struggle that neither President Bush nor Democrats wanted.
    ‘‘We feel like we’ve moved an iceberg an inch,’’ said Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Florida, acknowledging the enormity of the task confronting Democrats who took office in January determined to end the war.
    Not that top Republicans were happy with legislation that included about $8 billion in domestic spending, added at Democratic insistence. ‘‘We’ve got a whole host of other issues that don’t deserve to be put on the backs of our men and women in the military,’’ said House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio shortly before the vote. ‘‘It’s a sneaky way to do business.’’
    Perhaps, but Bush was a full partner, his leverage diminished by approval ratings in the 30s and the war’s unpopularity.
    Republicans had already shown they would sustain a veto on legislation that impinges on Bush’s authority as commander in chief, having done so on a bill that included a troop withdrawal timetable. But they, like Democrats, support government aid to farmers and hurricane victims.
    And they were no less clear that their commitment to the current war policy isn’t open-ended. ‘‘I think that the handwriting is on the wall that we are going in a different direction in the fall, and I expect the president to lead it,’’ said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the GOP leader.
    ‘‘You know, I think it’s a statement of the obvious that the Iraq war is not popular,’’ he added at a news conference on Friday. So much so that 81 percent of self-described political independents in a recent New York Times-CBS poll said things are going badly in Iraq.
    If public sentiment on the war worries Republicans, it stirs a different emotion among Democrats.
    ‘‘Anger that we do not have the power to make the will of the people of America the law of our land,’’ said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
    Durbin, Majority Leader Harry Reid and many other anti-war Senate Democrats voted for the bill. ‘‘I cannot vote ... to stop funding for our troops who are in harm’s way,’’ said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich, chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
    Across the Capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders had executed a far more complicated maneuver.
    They arranged for two separate votes, one on the domestic spending, the other on war money — but no third roll call on the combined package. That freed liberals to oppose war funds, as the speaker and 139 Democrats did. As expected, Republicans provided the bulk of the votes needed for the military money, inoculating Pelosi and her party from charges they had blocked resources the troops needed.
    Several of the Democrats who sit around her leadership table parted company with the Californian.
    Reps. Steny Hoyer, the majority leader, voted for the war funds, as did Reps. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois and Jim Clyburn of South Carolina.
    ‘‘Fort Jackson and Shaw Air Force Base are in my hometown of Sumter,’’ said Clyburn, the party whip. ‘‘When I go home, when I go to the churches, when I go to these social events, I want to be able to — for every parent, every spouse, every child I meet, to know that I stood there with them when they thought that I should.’’
    For all the maneuvering, Democrats had concluded that it was essential to provide funds for the Pentagon, then renew their effort to force a change in policy.
    ‘‘This is not a game. They run out of money next week,’’ said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., whose speech opposing Bush’s Iraq policy more than a year ago was a turning point.
    By midweek, according to several officials, Democrats had abandoned their demand for a troop withdrawal timetable. Gone, too, was a proposal requiring the president to issue a public report whenever the Pentagon ordered troops shipped to Iraq without the required training, equipment or rest.
    A provision threatening to cut reconstruction aid unless the Iraqi government meets standards for military and political progress was reduced to a warning. Bush retains the right to decide whether the aid will be spent.
    Officials in both parties described a series of events leading to the final deal.
    Reid conveyed the concessions on Monday in a phone call to White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten.
    In exchange, Reid wanted $21 billion in added spending. About $9 billion was for defense-related items, the other $12 billion for domestic programs such as hurricane relief, farmer aid, low-income children’s health care and more.
    Bolten said the administration would accept the military-related add-ons, these officials said, but came back with a counteroffer that left room for about $8 billion in domestic spending.
    The outlines of a $120 billion bill were in place, but the haggling continued until Wednesday night.
    Bolten and Budget Director Rob Portman told Reid they could not accept several of the items on a late Democratic wish list. Among them was a provision involving the sale of Christmas ornaments by the Senate’s day care center. Bush had ridiculed it at one point, and could not now sign it.
    That left a $2 billion item extending pension relief to American, Continental and other airlines. Portman told Reid it would have to go. The majority leader objected, but said he would call back.
    When he did, he told the president’s aides Bush could veto the bill if he wanted, but the pension provision was staying in the bill.
    ———
    EDITOR’S NOTE — David Espo is AP’s chief congressional correspondent.

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