WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday that Democrats won't approve more money for the Iraq war this year unless President Bush agrees to begin bringing troops home.
By the end of the week, the House and Senate planned to vote on a $50 billion measure for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill would require Bush to initiate troop withdrawals immediately with the goal of ending combat by December 2008.
If Bush vetoes the bill, "then the president won't get his $50 billion," Reid, D-Nev., told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., made a similar statement last week in a closed-door caucus meeting.
The tough rhetoric does not necessarily foretell another veto showdown with Bush on the war. Similar legislation has routinely fallen short of the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural hurdles in the Senate. It is possible the upcoming bill will sink, in which case Democrats would probably wait until next year to revisit the issue.
But their remarks reflect an emerging Democratic strategy on the war: Force congressional Republicans and Bush to accept a timetable for troop withdrawals, or turn Pentagon accounting processes into a bureaucratic nightmare.
If Democrats refuse to send Bush the $50 billion, the military would have to drain its annual budget to keep the wars afloat. Last week, Congress approved a $471 billion budget for the military that pays mostly for non-war related projects, such as depot maintenance and weapons development.
The tactic stops short of blocking money outright from being used on the war, an approach that has divided Democrats and fueled Republican criticism that Democrats are eager to abandon the troops. But forcing the Pentagon into a painful budget dance to pay for the wars spares Democrats from having to write a blank check on the unpopular war.
"We will and we must pay for whatever cost to protect the American people," said House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "But tragically, unfortunately, incredibly, the war is not making us safer."
In a recent letter to Congress, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England warned that the Army was on track to run out of money by February.
England also said that without more money the military would eventually have to close facilities, layoff civilian workers and defer contracts. Also, the budget delay could disrupt training efforts of Iraqi security forces and efforts to protect troops against roadside bombs, he said.
"The successes they (the troops ) have achieved in recent months will be short lived without appropriate resources to continue their good work," England wrote in a Nov. 8 letter.
A White House spokesman said Bush would veto any legislation that sets a timetable for troop withdrawals.
In a speech in Indiana on Tuesday, Bush said Congress should not leave for Christmas recess without passing a clean war spending bill.
"We don't need members of Congress telling our military commanders what to do," he said. "We need our military commanders telling us what to do so we can win the war against these extremists and radicals."
Congressional Republicans said they would back the president.
"It's very clear that the American people want us to succeed," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. "They would like for our troops to be able to come home, but not in a losing cause."
The House was expected to vote as early as Wednesday, with the Senate following suit by the end of the week.
The bill is similar to one Bush rejected in May. Unable to muster the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto, Democrats stripped the timetable from the $95 billion bill and approved the war money without restrictions.