President Bush Vetoes Iraq War Funding Bill
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SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: It’s been five days since Democrats in Congress passed a $124 billion Iraq war funding bill, with a much-debated troop withdrawal timeline attached. However, their leaders chose today to send it off to the White House, exactly four years after President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq.
SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Majority Leader: Today, right now, we renew our call to President Bush. There’s still time to listen to the American people. There’s still time to sign this bill and change course in Iraq.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), Speaker of the House: I hope that he will listen to the American people, so that we can refocus our full attention on fighting the war on terror.
SPENCER MICHELS: But the president repeatedly has dismissed those pleas. And during a mid-day speech at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, he argued withdrawing troops at this point would bring greater chaos to Iraq.
GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Withdrawal would have emboldened these radicals and extremists. It would have confirmed their beliefs that our nations were weak.
It would help them gain new recruits, new resources. It would cause them to believe they could strike free nations at their choice. Withdrawal would have increased the probability that coalition troops would be forced to return to Iraq one day and confront an enemy that is even more dangerous.
SPENCER MICHELS: Congressional Democrats, however, insist U.S. combat troops begin leaving Iraq in July or October, depending on progress made by the Iraqi government. The goal would be to complete the withdrawal of troops by the end of March.
SEN. BILL NELSON (D), Florida: The era of blank checks is over.
SPENCER MICHELS: Democrats also argue the president needs to recognize the mandate voters gave them last November to end the war quickly. California’s Barbara Boxer.
SEN. BARBARA BOXER (D), California: He acts as if he is a one-man show when it comes to Iraq. And, Mr. President, the American people said no to that this past election. And yet it continues, as if there’s no Congress, there’s been no election, there’s been no change of heart by the American people, when, in fact, there’s been an enormous change of heart by the American people.
SPENCER MICHELS: But Missouri Republican Kit Bond argued withdrawal would lead to defeat in Iraq and that Democrats will shoulder the blame.
SEN. KIT BOND (R), Missouri: If they pass — if we pass legislation that loses the war, then the people who vote to pass the legislation that ends the war are going to own it. That failure will be their failure.
SPENCER MICHELS: However, both Republicans and Democrats are well-aware that this bill, as currently written, has little chance of surviving any attempt to override the president’s veto in either the House or the Senate.
Next steps for the legislation
JIM LEHRER: Now, to two senators from the Senate subcommittee that oversees appropriations for the Iraq war, Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington state, and Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas.
Senator Murray, the president has vetoed the bill. Presumably now the veto will be sustained. What do you want to happen next?
SEN. PATTY MURRAY (D), Washington: Well, you know, I just -- I feel really disappointed this evening. I thought that we had given the president an opportunity to have a very strong tool to go back to Iraq and say, "You need to stand up and take responsibility for your country."
And he has rejected not only that, but he's rejected the funds in this bill that will help us help our veterans across the country who can't get an appointment, who have traumatic brain injury, who need specialized care, for the thousands of soldiers who are coming home and struggling with post-traumatic stress syndrome, and for the facilities that they need, as well as for the victims of Katrina.
So he said no to all that tonight. So it's a very disappointing time for all of us.
JIM LEHRER: But hardly a surprise. The president said he was going to do it, correct.
SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Well, you know, sometimes when you get something on your desk and you actually read it and understand how important it is, it can change your mind. And I guess I held out hope for that.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Hutchison, what is your reaction to what the president did a while ago?
SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (R), Texas: Well, I think the president had no choice. He told Congress that they could not set deadlines and overrule the commander-in-chief and the commanders on the ground. Congress knew that. They passed the bill anyway. And it is Congress that is holding up the funding that is so needed by our troops.
It would be -- I think it's unthinkable that Congress would take this kind of position and, I think, endanger the troops that do have boots on the ground, troops that we should be supporting. We should not be second-guessing them from 30,000 miles away.
I think the president did what he said he was going to do. He had no choice. And now I hope Congress will work with the president.
Benchmarks, yes, we want the Iraqi government to do the things that will show progress. But to say, American troops are going to leave, no matter what's happening on the ground, is surrender. There is no other word for it.
JIM LEHRER: Now, back to my question, Senator Murray, there are to be some meetings tomorrow, right? In other words, this thing is going to -- members of the Congress are now going to meet with the president and try to take another step, is that correct?
SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Well, I would hope so. I mean, I hope that what the president says tonight and says to all of us is that he is willing to talk to us about how to move forward in a better way in Iraq that changes the course of what we have.
What worries me is his message of veto, if it's just, "Sorry, same thing, same course, no changes, sending people over there, putting them in the middle of a civil war, and not funding the important parts of this bill, which is the support of the troops, that all of us want to make happen," I think that's going to be a bad message.
I hope he realizes that Congress is an equal branch and that he extends a branch of, "We want to work with you and come up with language that does start us down a different course."
JIM LEHRER: A quick answer from you, Senator Hutchison. Do you believe that the president is willing now to sit down with the congressional leadership, the Democratic congressional leadership, and work something out?
SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Well, absolutely, as long as it doesn't put our troops in harm's way.
And I think what's being lost here, Jim, is that the president has changed course. The president did hear the people in the election. He's changed the secretary of defense. There is a new general on the ground.
There is a new strategy. It's legitimate to argue about what is the best strategy, but the fact is, the president is doing what the generals have said will work. They put this plan together. The president didn't. And the president is trusting his generals. And for Congress to second-guess them, I think, is the wrong message to send from the United States.
President Bush's veto speech
JIM LEHRER: Senators Hutchison and Murray, excuse me one moment. Don't go away. I want to show you -- just a few moments ago, President Bush did officially veto the funding bill. And, afterward, let's listen to what he said, just for a few minutes here.
GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Here's why the bill Congress passed is unacceptable.
First, a bill -- the bill would mandate a rigid and artificial deadline for American troops to begin withdrawing from Iraq. That withdrawal could start as early as July 1st, and it would have to start no later than October 1st, regardless of the situation on the ground.
It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing. All the terrorists would have to do is mark their calendars, and gather their strength, and begin plotting how to overthrow the government, and take control of the country of Iraq.
I believe setting a deadline for a withdrawal will demoralize the Iraqi people. It would encourage killers across the broader Middle East and send a signal that America will not keep its commitments. Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a date for failure, and that would be irresponsible.
Second, the bill would impose impossible conditions on our commanders in combat. After forcing most of our troops to withdraw, the bill would dictate the terms in which the remaining commanders and troops could engage the enemy.
That means Americans' commanders in the middle of a combat zone would have to take fighting directions from politicians 6,000 miles away in Washington, D.C. This is a prescription for chaos and confusion, and we must not impose it on our troops.
Collaborating with the president
JIM LEHRER: Now back now to Senators Murray and Hutchison. Sorry to interrupt you there, Senator Murray. The president had just spoken there at the White House, and I wanted you all to hear what he has said specifically.
There's no need to -- we don't need to re-debate this thing now, because what the president was just talking about, the bill he just vetoed is now a goner. So what happens now, Senator Murray? If the president won't accept anything that has deadlines in it, where is there room for a compromise that you Democrats might find a way to work this thing out?
SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Well, what I wanted to hear from the president and didn't hear is what plan he has for success. I think we have all listened very carefully to many generals who have been speaking out. We listened to the Iraq bipartisan study commission.
We listened to a lot of people who have come here to Congress, over 50 hearings that we've now had on the Iraq war. And having our troops in the middle of a civil war in Iraq is not a recipe for success.
We were giving the president tools to be able to say to the Iraqis, "You need to solve this crisis within your own borders in order to be successful." So I want to hear from the president how he expects that to be successful.
The same thing, the same course, another surge, is that what we're going to be hearing two years from now, five years from now, 10 years from now? I want to hear what he's going to hear differently to us, and tonight I didn't hear that.
JIM LEHRER: So not having heard that then, Senator Murray, you don't see any room for compromise?
SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Well, he's invited the Democratic and Republican leaders to talk with him tomorrow. I hope that he has a frank conversation and a realistic conversation about what the situation is in Iraq and presents a different alternative that we can all agree on.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Hutchison, do you see a, quote, "different alternative" coming from the president?
SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: I do think the president has already tried to offer a different kind of solution. I do think there, for instance, is a meeting of the prime ministers in the region, the foreign ministers in the region, to come together to try to be helpful in Iraq. That's happening in the next week.
That's a very good sign, that the others in the region would come and try to help stabilize this country. I, frankly, think that the outside countries in that region have been notoriously silent, and it's time for them to step up and stabilize Iraq. It's not in anyone's interest for Iraq to become a terrorist haven, which it is on its way to becoming.
America leaving without the stability put in place would exacerbate that problem, so I think we are talking about the strength of our country, and how we respond, and whether our word is good. So the president is trying to see this through. And there is something happening just in the next week that is positive.
JIM LEHRER: But the specific situation here, there's a funding bill that now is not law. In other words, there's over $120 billion that are needed to execute the war. What happens in the meantime, while this disagreement continues between...
SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: ... to pass a clean bill, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: A clean bill?
SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: That's the role of Congress. It is not to tell the generals how to run a war. It's not to tell the president who's the commander-in-chief how to run the war. Advise, yes. And try to come together, yes. Try to set benchmarks together, yes. But to say, "Withdrawal of troops," without regard to what's happening, is unacceptable.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Murray, would you accept a clean bill, a clean funding bill that had benchmarks?
SEN. PATTY MURRAY: I'm not sure what that definition is. This president has asked for numerous supplemental emergency spending bills, all off-budget, all by rubber stamp of this Congress. And this Congress is saying, "Mr. President, we want to make sure that the taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and that we have progress in Iraq that puts us in a better place in the future."
And we are going to use our oversight on this spending bill. All of us do agree that we have to make sure that our troops have the supplies and equipment and support they need to be successful in the mission that they've been asked to do.
But Congress has a right to have oversight and say, "Mr. President, we believe that it is time to take a look at this war in a way that brings us to a better successful conclusion, not just another surge. And I think that we hope to have a discussion about that over the next several days."
SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: But withholding money from the troops and the protection that is in this bill from IEDs is not the right way to have oversight.
SEN. PATTY MURRAY: No one is withholding money from the troops, no one.
SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: You can talk about oversight and you can talk about the strategy...
SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Nobody.
SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: ... which we're doing, but we are withholding money from the troops.
SEN. PATTY MURRAY: We're not. Our troops will have what they need.
JIM LEHRER: One at a time here. You're saying, Senator Hutchison, that this would withhold money from the troops. Senator Murray, you're saying no, it wouldn't withhold money from the troops?
SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Well, look, if the president had done what he should have done, which is to ask money for the war within the regular budget process, we wouldn't even be here being requested for another emergency supplemental off-line.
So the president didn't ask for the money in the budget. He had to ask for emergency spending. We are now trying to put that bill forward. We will make sure that that money is there for the troops. None of us is going to leave them without what they need.
But we do have a right to have a debate about oversight on how that's spent and how accountability, and I hope that's a discussion we can now have.
JIM LEHRER: But the debate -- you say you want a debate, but if it ends up...
SEN. PATTY MURRAY: With the president.
JIM LEHRER: With the president, OK. But if it is ends up that you can't get what you want, which are timetables that are in the legislation -- it's either timetables in the legislation or the money, you will take the money, right?
SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Well, I want to hear what the president has to offer. I didn't hear that in his veto message tonight. And I think that that is an important step for him to take, to recognize where the American public has been for the last four months, and how much movement there has been, and where they want him to go.
And I want to hear that in his voice, that he understands it, which will give us an opportunity to sit down with him and find a common way forward.
A partisan debate?
JIM LEHRER: Senator Hutchison, let me ask you this. Why is it that the division on this, whether it's the House or your United States Senate, is almost 100 percent partisan? In other words, all the Republicans vote one way, all the Democrats vote another. Is this about political parties, Iraq is now about political parties and political positions?
SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Well, Jim, I hope not. I do think that's what the American people are seeing. I think there is a philosophical difference that's very clear.
I think the majority in Congress is trying to micromanage the war. The Republicans in Congress believe that that is absolutely not the role of Congress, that, of course, we should debate policy. Of course, we should have the right for oversight. But no one is saying that the money isn't being spent for the troops. That's what oversight is, and that's not being claimed here.
The philosophical difference is the role of the president and the role of Congress under the Constitution. And it's very clear: The president is the commander-in-chief, and Congress holds the purse strings. If you want to cut off the purse strings, we have that right. I think...
JIM LEHRER: Hold on. Hold on sec here. Senator Murray, the same question. Don't you find it interesting, as Senator Hutchison just said, the American people do, that it may be a philosophical difference, but it's a political party difference, as the votes go right now, is it not?
SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Actually, I find it very interesting that, in fact, there were two Republicans who did vote with the Democrats in the Senate on the supplemental spending bill. And I am hearing growing concern from a number of Republicans who have been very vocal about, yes, they did tell the president that they will give him this one more opportunity for a surge through June or August or September, whatever time frame that he is now defining as that, to look at that to see whether it's been successful.
But there is a growing sentiment in Congress, all the way around, that this can't be a never-ending surge after surge after surge. Our troops are being depleted. We don't have the capacity to continue to go this. If you just look at the cost of it, in terms of lives, in terms of how we take care of our troops when they come home, there has to be a moment when more people are going to say, "Enough is enough."
JIM LEHRER: There is one ending that must happen, and that's our discussion right now. Thank you both very much.
SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Thank you.