President Bush faces new challenges from the Democratic-controlled Congress over new troop deployments in Iraq and funding for military operations. Democrats in the House of Representatives are proposing legislation calling for U.S. troops to begin withdrawing from Iraq as early as this year, and by 2008 at the latest, as the White House issued a veto threat, while Senate Democrats tried but failed to win Republican support for a plan to debate a withdrawal resolution. VOA's Dan Robinson has a report.

The challenges to the president came as he began the first leg of a trip to countries in South and Central America.

House Democratic leaders unveiled Iraq-Afghanistan funding legislation Speaker Nancy Pelosi says reflects the desire of Americans for a new direction in Iraq. "The American people say it over and over. They expect us to represent them with good judgment. They expect us to honor our first responsibility, which is to protect and defend the American people and that depends on troop readiness, that depends on our having our strategic reserves be strong and ready to protect our interests wherever they are threatened that is what this bill does," she said.

The measure expands on the president's original Iraq-Afghanistan funding request to require him to meet deadlines in July and October of this year to inform Congress about progress made by the Iraqi government on meeting political, economic and security goals.

Inability to provide that certification would trigger the start of a six month period of troop withdrawals, with most troops out of Iraq by the fall of 2008 at the latest.

As part of the bill containing just over $95 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan, Democrats would also require the president to certify that U.S. military units he would deploy be fully trained and equipped, with provisions to limit the amount of time troops can be deployed in Iraq.

"When this war started, almost every reserve unit, and all our active duty strategic reserve, were at the highest level of readiness. Now they are at the lowest state of readiness. We cannot deploy as quickly as we like to deter or enforce things overseas because of the lack of readiness, so we have tried to address that," said Democratic congressman John Murtha, who chairs a key defense subcommittee.

Democrats assert that redeployment from Iraq will allow U.S. efforts to refocus on Afghanistan, where American, NATO and Afghan National Army forces face strengthened resistance from Taleban and al-Qaida fighters.

"Afghanistan is the correct war, that is the one that will require readiness today, tomorrow, and in the days and months ahead," said Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Democratic leaders would allow the president to waive military readiness requirements, but this could prove politically-embarrassing for a president who has faced criticism since 2003 over such issues as inadequate body armor for troops.

There would be $3.5 billion added to support the military health care system, this amid ongoing controversy about poor conditions at some outpatient care facilities used by wounded active duty troops and veterans.

House Democratic leaders hope to finalize the legislation next week, aiming to bring it to the House floor the week after.

Republicans are already attacking the plan accusing Democrats of playing into the hands of insurgent and terrorist forces in Iraq.

House minority leader John Boehner predicts most Republicans will oppose the measure. "Republicans are not going to vote to tie the hands of our generals and our troops on the ground, slowly bleed the resources away from them, and we are not going to vote for failure in Iraq, which is exactly what their [the Democrats] plan does," he said.

The White House has issued a veto threat, with presidential spokesmen accompanying the presisdent in South America echoing Republican criticisms of the Democratic plan.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders in the Senate tried but failed to win Republican support for a debate on a joint resolution calling for a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces by March of 2008.

Senator Harry Reid spoke Thursday before his latest bid for a debate on Iraq was blocked. "We can't stay in Iraq forever, that is an understatement. The question becomes whether we will continue to follow the president's failed strategy, or whether we will work to change course. Will the Senate sit silent, or will we bring stability to Iraq and bring our troops home from a protracted civil war?," he said.

Iraq-Afghanistan funding legislation the Democrats plan to finalize in committees next week would also prohibit permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq, and prohibit any military strike on Iran without approval from Congress.