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."
Democratic activists are rallying behind the strategy as an alternative to other attempts that urge immediate withdrawal or attempt to cut off all funds. By attaching the conditions to the supplemental bill that must pass in order to finance the troops, the thinking goes, Murtha is making it more difficult politically for Republicans to oppose. "The Republicans are going to be in a box," says former Rep. Tom Andrews, a leading Democratic strategist behind the effort, which will also include a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign financed partly by the liberal group Moveon.org. But Democrats are also wary of being maligned for cutting off funding for troops and siding too much with the antiwar wing of the party. According to a recent Associated Press/Ipsos poll, more than half of the public thinks the war is a hopeless cause, but fewer than 30 percent of Americans want to cut off all funding, and fewer than 40 percent want to cut funding for the president's plan. Republicans face their own set of vexing political calculations: ensuring that the troops are funded while maintaining political cover on Iraq.
Options. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is reportedly supporting some of the Murtha plan, but Democratic leaders haven't yet lined up behind the plan formally and say they're still reviewing many different options. The results of the budget process won't be seen for months, considering that any binding law would have to pass the House and the Senate. "It's pretty clear none of these are going to be passed through the House and Senate in the short term," says a top Democratic strategist. For the past two years, it took the Republican-led Congress until May or June to enact similar bills, and those carried no such conditions.
By that time this year, the situation in Iraq and public support for the president's policy may have changed considerably. Indeed, experts expect the budget tug of war to be a long, drawn-out process. Scott Lilly, a fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress and longtime top aide to Democratic appropriators, says by the time any supplemental bill is passed, the president's surge may have been implemented. "This supplemental process needs to be looked at as a battle and not a war," he says. "What this is all about is touching the gloves between Congress and the White House." For the fighters in both corners, there are many rounds left to go.
With Danielle Knight and Kenneth T. Walsh
This story appears in the February 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.