(photo credit: AP)
Bowing to President George W. Bush, the Democratic-controlled Congress grudgingly approved fresh billions for the Iraq war, minus the troop withdrawal timeline that drew his earlier veto.
"The Iraqi government needs to show real progress in return for America's continued support and sacrifice," the president said, and he warned that August could prove to be a bloody month for US troops in Baghdad's murderous neighborhoods.
The Senate vote to send the legislation to the president, 80-14, came Thursday night, less than two hours after the House gave its approval on a margin of 280-142. In both cases, Republicans supplied the bulk of the support, an oddity in an era of Democratic control.
Democrats in both houses coupled their concession with pledges to challenge Bush's policies anew - and force Republicans to choose over and over between the president and public sentiment on the unpopular war. "This debate will go on," vowed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, also a Democrat, was even more emphatic. "Senate Democrats will not stop our efforts to change the course of this war until either enough Republicans join with us to reject President Bush's failed policy or we get a new president," he said.
But Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell cautioned against more of the same. "I want to make it clear ... that if all funding bills are going to be this partisan and contentious, it will be a very long year," he said.
From the White House to the Capitol, the day's events closed out one chapter in an epic struggle pitting Congress against the president over a war that has claimed the lives of more than 3,400 US troops.
House Republican leader John Boehner choked back tears as he stirred memories of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "After 3,000 of our fellow citizens died at the hands of these terrorists, when are we going to take them on? When are we going to defeat them," he asked.
The legislation includes nearly $95 billion to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through Sept. 30. In addition to jettisoning their plan for a troop withdrawal timeline, Democrats abandoned attempts to require the Pentagon to adhere to troop training, readiness and rest requirements unless Bush waived them.
The bill establishes a series of goals for the Iraqi government to meet as it strives to build a democratic country able to defend its own borders. Continued US reconstruction aid would be conditioned on progress toward the so-called benchmarks, although Bush retains the authority to order that the funds be spent regardless of how the Baghdad government performs.
In exchange for providing the war money on Bush's terms, Democrats won White House approval for about $17 billion in spending above what the administration originally sought. Roughly $8 billion of that was for domestic programs from hurricane relief to farm aid to low-income children's health coverage.
Democrats also won a top priority - the first minimum wage increase in more than a decade. The current federal wage floor of $5.15 an hour will go to $7.25 in three installments of 70 cents.
Republican concern about the war was evident, although the rank and file voted with few exceptions for the funds.
"It seems to me it's time for them (the Iraqis) to show what is their ability and professionalism to step up," said Sen. John Warner, a Republican. He said if conditions do not improve by mid-July, the president should reconsider his strategy.
Democratic divisions were on display, vividly so when Reid voted for the war money after Pelosi opposed it.
Presidential politics played a role, as Democrats Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton cast votes against the legislation strongly opposed by anti-war activists.
In a highly unusual maneuver, House Democratic leaders crafted a procedure that allowed their rank and file to oppose money for the war, then step aside so Republicans could advance it.
There were 194 Republicans in favor, as well as 86 Democrats, three members of the leadership among them. Pelosi and 139 other Democrats voted against the measure, as did two Republicans.
Moments earlier, the House voted 348-73 to include a separate package of domestic spending that Bush had once resisted.
After months of struggle with the White House, Democrats took credit for forcing Republicans to begin changing course. At the same time, they emphasized their distaste for enabling the money to advance.
"I hate this agreement," said Democratic Rep. David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who played a key role in talks with the White House that yielded the measure.
He voted against the money, but Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, no less an opponent of the conflict, cast a different vote.
"I cannot vote ... to stop funding for our troops who are in harm's way," said Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I simply cannot and I will not do that. It is not the proper way that we can bring this war to an end."
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