A Big Fight on the Hill
Last week's House battle over Iraq is just the first of many
Congress has been talking about it for weeks, jousting, posturing, and trading partisan jabs. Last week, the Democrats who control the House of Representatives finally got around to actually voting on President Bush's new policy in Iraq. After four days of debate, the 246-to-182 ballot in favor of a brief, nonbinding resolution opposing the president's plan to add more than 20,000 troops seemed, well, anticlimactic.
Perhaps that's because it was. While it was a resounding vote of no confidence in the president's plan, it was also just the first of many legislative battles as Congress decides how strenuously to exert its constitutional powers to control funding for the war. That process is many months away from conclusion, but the political stakes are ratcheting up almost by the day.
Democrats voted nearly unanimously for the resolution last week, save for two members, and they were joined by a varied lot of 17 Republicans. Some, like Walter Jones of North Carolina, were early supporters of the Iraq war who eventually turned against the president. Others, like Michael Castle of Delaware, could face tough re-election campaigns in 2008.
Hanging tough. Despite the increasing pressure, the president shows no signs of backing away from his insistence on "victory." He hopes that the situation improves and that Iraqi forces can gradually take more responsibility. But he believes he can accomplish the planned troop surge and maintain whatever troop levels are necessary through the end of his presidency, in January 2009, White House advisers say. Those advisers are clinging to the hope that, in the end, most congressional Democrats won't vote to cut off funds for the troops.
Democrats are calling the House resolution "Step 1" in their approach toward shaping Iraq policy. Next up is the Senate, which so far has failed to even muster a vote on Iraq. At week's end, senators were poised to take up a measure that could lead to consideration of the same language passed by the House.
But the fight on Capitol Hill is already shifting to much tougher ground: the budget process. The president is requesting $93.4 billion in supplemental funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and next month Congress will consider whether to make changes to that budget request or other alterations to Bush's plan. In mid-March, the House International Relations Committee will hold hearings to consider about a dozen bills on Iraq, including efforts to withdraw troops from Iraq and proposals to force the Defense Department to change how it reviews contracts in Iraq for fraud and abuse.
In interviews and announcements last week coordinated with antiwar interest groups, Rep. John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat shepherding the Pentagon spending bill through Congress as chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, detailed a process that would set conditions on the bill, thereby tying the president's hands. Murtha's plan-Democratic activists dub it "the readiness strategy"-would, in part, require that soldiers have at least one year at home before they're redeployed for a second tour and would ensure that troops have appropriate training and equipment under military guidelines. It would also end "stop loss" procedures that extend soldiers' tours. The upshot? "This vote will limit the options of the president," Murtha says, "and should stop the surge."