President George W. Bush on Tuesday defied the Democratic-controlled Congress by vetoing a war-spending bill that set a timetable for withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.
Mr Bush had threatened for weeks to reject any legislation including withdrawal dates, which he argued would amount to an admission of defeat.
The bill, passed last week, authorised $124bn of emergency spending, mostly for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also set a target for all combat troops to be out of Iraq by April next year.
Speaking after the veto, Mr Bush said on Monday: “Setting a date for withdrawal is setting a date for failure and that would be irresponsible.”
The legislation represented the strongest challenge to presidential power since the Democrats took control of Capitol Hill in January.
The veto opened a new phase in the power struggle, with congressional leaders expected to meet Mr Bush at the White House on Wednesday in search of a compromise.
Mr Bush has demanded a fresh bill stripped of withdrawal dates, arguing that further delay would starve the military of urgently-needed funds.
“They’ve sent their message,” he said, referring to the vetoed bill. “Now it is time to put politics behind us and support the troops.”
Harry Reid, Senate majority leader, vowed to “reach out” to Mr Bush but said Democrats would continue pushing for an end to the war.
“If the president thinks by vetoing this bill he will stop us from working to change the direction of the war in Iraq, he is mistaken,” he said.
Nancy Pelosi, House speaker, said Congress would not give in to Mr Bush’s demands for a “blank cheque”.
The Democrats do not have a big enough majority in Congress to override the veto, leaving party leaders with a dilemma over what to do next.
Growing anti-war sentiment among congressional Democrats would make it difficult for the leadership to win approval for more unconditional funding.
But they are also aware that failure to agree a compromise would expose the party to accusations of undermining the military.
Senior Democrats have floated a compromise that would remove withdrawal dates in return for the strengthening of performance benchmarks that the Iraqi government would be required to meet in return for continued US support.
But Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, indicated on Sunday that Mr Bush was opposed to any conditions on war funding.
“Democrats want benchmarks so that, four or five months down the road, they can say, ‘this is what you said constituted success and it has not been achieved’,” said William Howell, an expert on congressional power in wartime at the University of Chicago.
Tuesday’s veto marked only the second time that Mr Bush has rejected legislation during his six years in office, in part because Congress was Republican-led until last year’s midterm elections.
Bill Clinton, his predecessor, issued 37 vetoes in eight years, while George H.W Bush vetoed on 44 occasions.
The Democrats delivered the bill to the White House on Tuesday on the fourth anniversary of Mr Bush’s speech hailing the end of major combat operations in Iraq – made on the decks of the USS Abraham Lincoln beneath a banner declaring “mission accomplished”.
Mr Howell said the veto was “stage one” in what was likely to be a long battle between Congress and the White House.
He likened the showdown to the early stages of congressional efforts to end the Vietnam War in the 1970s. “It is following a very similar path to Vietnam,” he said.