Democrats have yet to decide precisely what they plan to do, considering they are well short of the votes they need to override the veto. It looks all but certain that they will have to jettison the bill's deadlines for troop withdrawal a move that is certain to lose some of their more liberal members, but that could attract support from Republicans, who are facing increasing impatience for progress in Iraq from their voters at home. And while there is still some discussion of a "short leash" strategy passing a small funding bill, and continuing to fight that idea is losing steam, because Democratic leaders believe it would simply give Bush a series of victories.
As Democrats begin negotiating with Republicans, the central question will be how strong they can make what's left of the bill, particularly the "benchmarks" for Iraqi progress on such issues as democratization, strengthening their security forces, cutting down on sectarian violence, disarming the militias and other goals. President Bush opposes any move to punish the Iraqis if they do not meet those targets, but some congressional Republicans say they might be willing to consider reducing non-military aid, including reconstruction funds. What they will not support, says one G.O.P. leadership aide, is anything that ties the benchmarks to a troop withdrawal "creating a benchmark that's a surrender date by another name." Republicans are also likely to insist that Democrats strip the bill of some of the $20 billion included for extraneous spending on items that range from peanut storage to aid to spinach farmers.
In the meantime, a new Gallup poll shows how uncertain is the political terrain that lawmakers must navigate on the issue. While 57% of Americans favor setting a timetable and sticking to it, only 30% favor beginning that withdrawal this year, as the bill would have done.