COMMENTS: No Timeline, Maybe Benchmarks

The next step in the slow Constitutional slog towards finding a formula for paying for the war in Iraq was dutifully taken. The House of Representatives upheld President George Bush's veto of the $124bn funding bill and the networks made the vote their Story of the Day. ABC led with the vote from Capitol Hill while CBS led from the White House. NBC chose the violent aftermath to the May Day pro-immigrant march in Los Angeles.

When Congressional leaders sat down at the White House with the President, the tone of debate "suddenly changed," noted NBC's Chip Reid. He called the improvement "extraordinary." "Hopeful pessimism," was how ABC's Jake Tapper described the upshot of the talks. He quoted Speaker Nancy Pelosi: "We owe it to the American people to find our common ground. Of course, we must stand our ground if we cannot find it." CBS' Jim Axelrod was skeptical: "Happy faces in a photo-op do not mask the most significant divide between the two branches of government since Vietnam." Axelrod thus consigned the Iran-contra affair, the nominations of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, and impeachment of Bill Clinton to the status of also-rans.

Now a new round of negotiations will begin over what set of strings can be attached to the funding that will be loose enough for the White House yet strict enough to win majorities in both houses of Congress. They may consist of political benchmarks for the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad--"ways to gauge Iraqi progress," as CBS' Axelrod described them. NBC's Reid suggested examples: "reducing sectarian violence, stabilizing the government, making progress on the economy." ABC's George Stephanopoulos explained that the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives is so internally riven that White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten will negotiate with Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell instead. Each incremental removal of restrictions on the conduct of the war will alienate Democrats and attract Republicans. The trio's job, said Stephanopoulos, is to calibrate the deal to generate a majority in the Senate and acceptance at the White House--and then "force it down the Speaker's and the Democrats' throats" in the House.

Meanwhile, ABC's White House correspondent Martha Raddatz (at the tail of the Stephanopoulos videostream) spotted an official change in the Commander in Chief's objectives in Iraq. He now merely wants to quell sectarian violence to "a level where people feel comfortable about living their daily lives" rather than bring it to an end. "Success is not no violence," Bush insisted--even though no violence would constitute a success. Raddatz suggested that the President's aides are now free to define an "acceptable level of violence…whenever and however they want."

As for al-Maliki and those so-called benchmarks, CBS' David Martin called the draft law to divide Iraqi oil wealth among the various sectarian factions "by no means a done deal." Parliament is preparing to take a two-month summer recess over the objections of Amb Ryan Crocker, the US envoy to Baghdad, so the likelihood of any quick legislative progress is zero.


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