Veto sets up Iraq showdown

Published May 2, 2007

WASHINGTON - Just two hours after the Iraq spending bill was hand-delivered to the White House, President Bush vetoed the measure because it sets a timetable for troop withdrawals.

"It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing, " Bush said Tuesday evening. "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."

Back in Washington after a four-hour visit to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Bush called the bill "a prescription for chaos and confusion, and we must not impose it on our troops."

His veto, only the second of his presidency, sets up a showdown with the Democratic Congress, which has insisted on a withdrawal timetable but lacks the votes to override the veto.

The $124-billion bill provides $95-billion for ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus other military programs. The remaining $29-billion would go to a variety of federal initiatives ranging from Gulf Coast hurricane recovery to children's health care.

In his remarks Tuesday evening, Bush complained that the bill has been "loaded with billions of dollars in nonemergency spending that has nothing to do with fighting the war on terror."

He vetoed the bill with a pen given to him by Robert Derga of Uniontown, Ohio, whose son Dustin, a Marine corporal, was killed in Iraq in May 2005. Derga gave Bush the pen during a meeting two weeks ago and asked him to use it to veto the bill.

Bush will meet with House and Senate leaders from both parties today, but he has shown little willingness to compromise on the fundamental issue of a withdrawal.

To make the point that Bush has been unrealistic about the war, Democratic leaders delivered the bill on the fourth anniversary of Bush's "Mission Accomplished" appearance on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.

"The president wants a blank check, " said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "The Congress is not going to give it to him."

A growing number of Republicans in Congress are willing to support a bill that would require the Iraqi government to meet benchmarks for a more stable and democratic society. Bush has not embraced such a compromise.

Earlier Tuesday, Bush landed at MacDill and was greeted with crisp salutes by some of the war's military brass: Adm. William Fallon, chief of U.S. Central Command; Gen. Bryan "Doug" Brown, chief of U.S. Special Operations Command; and the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.

Bush received a private briefing on the war and then spoke to representatives of the 43 nations that make up the U.S. military coalition in Iraq.

Bush made no reference to his pending veto of the Iraq spending bill or to the political storm in Washington over the war. Instead, he praised the coalition partners and said the work in Iraq must continue because failing will have dire consequences.

Leaving the nation because of increased violence "risked turning Iraq into a cauldron of chaos, " Bush warned. "Our enemy, the enemies of freedom, love chaos. Out of that chaos they could find new safe havens."

Afterward, Bush met privately with about a half-dozen families of fallen soldiers from west-central Florida. The White House did not release information about the meetings.

More than a mile from MacDill, nearly two dozen people gathered to protest Bush's visit.

"I can't stand the rhetoric any longer, " said one protester, Ray Chabor, 62, a St. Petersburg resident and Vietnam War veteran. "We've got to take back America and stop this war."

Some protested under a banner that said, "Quagmire Accomplished."

Times staff writer Casey Cora contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press. Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at adair@sptimes.com or 202463-0575.