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Both sides made their points on Iraq, now it's time to deal

Published May 3, 2007


WASHINGTON - When Democrats took control of Congress last November, President Bush vowed to find common ground with his political rivals.

"I'm confident that we can work together, " he said. "I'm confident we can overcome the temptation to divide this country between red and blue."

But six months later, there have been few signs of cooperation. On issues such as stem cell research, Medicare and especially the Iraq war, Bush has dug in his heels.

But this week's showdown over an Iraq spending bill puts tremendous pressure on Bush to compromise, because he faces strong public dissatisfaction with the four-year war and potential mutiny by Republicans.

For weeks, Bush has shown little willingness to compromise on the Iraq bill, which he vetoed because it included a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops. But on Wednesday, at a meeting with congressional leaders shortly after the House failed to muster enough votes to override his veto, Bush said it was time to work together.

"Today, " he said, "is a day where we can work together to find common ground."

A key sign of his willingness to cut a deal was his announcement about who will do the negotiating for him: senior White House aides Josh Bolten, Steve Hadley and Rob Portman.

Pressure on Iraq

After the meeting, Democrats said they were encouraged by the president's willingness to talk.

"The tone of this meeting was positive, " said Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader. "I think it was also clear that the president understands that there's a separate unit of government that he has to deal with called the Congress."

Some Republicans in Congress say it's critical that Bush cut a deal. If he doesn't, they say, he might alienate some supporters who have been feeling increased pressure from voters weary of the continued bloodshed in Iraq.

"I think the president's position on Iraq is dangerous in terms of what independents might think, " said Rep. Ric Keller, a Republican from the Orlando area. "I think the independents showed their views on this issues in the last election, and in public opinion polls."

In the past few days, a growing number of Republicans have been saying the president should compromise and do more to push the Iraqis to hasten the pace of their political reforms and security capabilities. He could do that by signing a bill that sets benchmarks for the Iraqi government and that threatens to withhold aid if the Iraqis fail to meet them.

Reps. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Adam Putnam of Bartow, the second- and third-ranking House Republicans, also expressed interest in benchmarks, provided they aren't tied to U.S. military support. A spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, also didn't rule the idea out.

"Republicans have made it abundantly clear that they're willing to talk about anything that does not provide a time line for withdrawal, a micromangement provision, or anything that telegraphs weakness to the enemy, " Boehner spokesman Brian Kennedy said.

Compromise is tough

But it's not clear if the two sides can bend enough. Some Democrats have been insistent on the timetable for withdrawal. Bush has been adamant against it.

Bush, who likes to portray himself as resolute, as "the decider, " has never been known as much of a dealmaker. Unlike presidents such as Lyndon Johnson, who was famous for his legislative skills, or Bill Clinton, who compromised with the Republican Congress on welfare reform and balancing the budget, Bush often seems to prefer a fight to a deal. Since the Democrats took over, he has issued 18 veto threats, though the war spending bill is only the second veto of his tenure.

Some Democrats say he's too inflexible.

"He's stubborn, and he doesn't listen, " said Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton.

Bush supporters see him differently.

"I think he's principled, " said Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor.

Stephen Hess, an adviser in both the Nixon and Carter administrations, said the president shouldn't worry about getting the money he wants for the war. The Democrats will clearly provide it, he said.

But Hess, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, believes both sides need to compromise and says that including benchmarks in the next bill "would be sufficient for both sides to show that they are bargaining in good faith."

Future deals unlikely

Once this dispute is resolved, however, Hess said he does not believe the president and Congress will find much common ground on other matters. On most of the major issues Congress is addressing or hopes to address, including embryonic stem cell research, taxes, the war and executive power, they just have starkly different political philosophies.

The main exception is immigration reform, where Bush's own interest in accommodating the estimated 12-million immigrants in the country illegally is more closely allied with the Democratic platform than the Republican one.

"It's not that he is incapable of compromising, " Hess said. "It's that I don't see the areas in which he can, because there's often a major philosophical barrier between what he wants and the Democratic leadership wants."

Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at or 202 463-0575. Staff writer Wes Allison can be reached at or (202) 463-0577.

[Last modified May 3, 2007, 01:31:37]

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