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The War in Washington

On no other issue has the Democratic takeover of Congress in January—presenting President Bush with an opposition Congress for the first time in his presidency—been more dramatic than on the Iraq war. Under the Republicans, Congress undoubtedly would not have taken the steps it has toward forcing a drawdown of US forces from Iraq—which a majority of members in both parties favor, no matter what they say publicly. Though both the House and the Senate took important steps in late March toward pressing the President to wind down the war, politicians in both parties are struggling to catch up with both the public’s increasingly negative opinion of the war and the facts about what’s actually happening in Iraq.

The controversy over the war has led to more agonizing on the part of members of Congress than any other issue in memory. Now that the war has evolved into something far different from what Congress authorized in 2002, the issue of how to wind it down, and the human and financial costs of continuing it, present difficult political problems for each party. Those with safe seats need not worry for themselves, but all members of Congress face another battle for control of both houses, as well as the forthcoming presidential election; so they are concerned about the future of their parties as well as their own seats. The Republicans are just beginning to overcome their shell shock at losing their majority in 2006, and many are pessimistic about 2008.

Following the outcome of last year’s election, a clash between Bush and the Democratic Congress over the war—and over other issues as well—was inevitable. Members of Congress—in both parties—have also begun to act on their resentment at the White House for treating them throughout Bush’s presidency largely as a nuisance that can be ignored. The administration’s firing of eight US attorneys (in some instances apparently to affect the cases they were handling) and its misleading and inept handling of the issue served to further drain the remaining enthusiasm of already unhappy Republicans for supporting the President’s policies in general, and particularly for defending the administration’s blunders. That these events coincided with Congress’s consideration of the White House’s request for supplemental funding for the war was not helpful to the President.

While the Democratic-led Congress has been conducting oversight hearings—for the first time in Bush’s presidency—intended to scrutinize the executive branch and has also passed a number of bills, nothing has consumed it remotely as much as the war. Shortly after the November election, the Democratic leaders of the Senate and the House decided to push for a series of votes on the war in the next Congress. The idea was to respond to the electorate and also to put the Republicans on the defensive—especially the moderates—so that eventually enough of them would vote with the Democrats to get a majority to force a change in Bush’s Iraq policy. The complication for the Democrats is that they want to bring an end to the war in Iraq without being held responsible for how it ends. A key Democratic strategist told me, “We don’t want to own this war. It’s Bush’s war, and we want him to keep owning it.”

The public was understood to have turned against the war before the last election, but the polls also showed that the voters were unclear about how it should end. The congressional Democrats reflect that ambivalence. So far they have adopted the position that they aren’t trying to end the war but to “refocus the mission” so that American troops will be in less danger.

Moreover, opponents of the Iraq war have had to contend with the Bush administration’s propaganda efforts. By exploiting the term “war on terror,” the administration has been all too successful in creating a corrosive climate of fear throughout the country.1 Bush and his allies assert that those who vote to wind down the war in Iraq are trying to “micromanage” it, and are interfering with the President’s constitutional authority to conduct war—a charge that comports with neither precedent nor the Constitution itself.2 The Republican leaders make the self-contradictory argument that to vote to extricate US troops from the murderous crossfire among warring factions in Iraq amounts to a failure to “support the troops.” So Democrats insist that they are not proposing to cut any money for the troops. The current prevailing view among Democrats—a position based on politics as well as policy, and one shared by numerous serious critics of the war—is that the US cannot simply withdraw from Iraq immediately; nor can a complete drawdown of US forces take place for some time to come. Therefore, both chambers’ bills speak of “redeployment” of most of the combat troops, allowing some to remain to train Iraqi forces, protect the Americans remaining in Iraq, and conduct anti-terror missions against al-Qaeda forces, a small but deadly presence in Iraq. A Democratic senator told me, “We are dealing with the realities here as well as in Iraq.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faced the daunting task of drafting resolutions on funding for the Iraq war that could gain the support of majorities of their party, which are splintered among those who seek a quick end to the war; those who are reluctant to impose conditions on the President’s conduct of the war; and those who want to find a way to devise an exit strategy to the war that could both be effective and win majority votes. The Democrats have been warned by their political consultants that the public, while opposed to the war, is not ready to support cutting off funds for it. The Republicans taunt the Democrats by saying if they really oppose the war they should simply deny the administration the funds for it, knowing that the great majority of Democrats are not willing to do so. (In fact, the Senate Republicans trapped the Democrats into voting against a cutoff, though the amendment was nonbinding and therefore has more symbolic than real effect.)

The idea that legislators should get out ahead of public opinion, that they should try to shape that opinion (as, say, did former Arkansas Democrat William Fulbright on the Vietnam War), sometimes risking their political careers by doing so, is essentially passé in American politics. Self-preservation, the need for money, and the advice of political consultants all discourage the taking of risks. The close margins in the House and the Senate work against the exercise of courage. In the Senate, the Democrats technically hold a 51–49 margin, but they lack the vote of the ailing Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and on the issue of the war they cannot expect to win the vote of Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman. And the votes of other centrist Democrats, such as Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, cannot be counted on.

This means that the Democrats need the votes of at least two Republicans. The Senate version of the supplemental spending bill on Iraq was passed only because Republican Senators Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon Smith of Oregon voted for it. In the House, the Democrats have a majority of 233–202 and cannot count on the votes of more than a few Republicans, if that, and have to expect to lose several of their party from the left and the right on numerous bills: the House version of the Iraq spending bill passed by a 218–212 margin, with two Republicans supporting it and fourteen Democrats opposing.

Some eighty Democratic House members belong to the Out of Iraq caucus, which was created in June 2005 to push for a quick end to the war. The members of this group are loath to vote for any more funds for the war, and hold the power to doom any resolution that does so. Pelosi’s greatest difficulties in getting a resolution through the House came from these members.

Therefore, Pelosi and her allies, including the antiwar Pennsylvanian John Murtha, the centrist majority leader Steny Hoyer, and David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations committee, as well as the liberal George Miller of California, who is said to be the last person Pelosi talks to before she makes a decision, had to devise a proposal that would win enough support from conservative and centrist Democrats as well as enough members of the Out of Iraq caucus. This required several contortions.

Republicans are in a bind of their own. In the Senate, some, such as Susan Collins of Maine, John Sununu of New Hampshire, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, and Gordon Smith, are up for reelection in states that lean strongly against the war. Still, despite the deep misgivings about the war on the part of numerous Republicans, almost all of them aren’t yet ready to break openly with the President. But the maneuvering earlier this year of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to block debate on the war put the Senate Republicans in a bad light and a half-dozen of them went to McConnell to urge him to change his position, saying that the Republicans had to show a willingness to at least allow debate on the issue of the war. Most Republican members, however, at this point believe that opposing the President on the war risks incurring the wrath of the Republican base and fracturing the party.

In writing their bills for supplemental funding for the Iraq war, the Democrats in both chambers fell back on the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which Bush seemed to have brushed off when it was presented to him. Both Senate and House versions also adopted most of the “benchmarks” for the progress of Iraqi government that Bush and Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki agreed on in early January, and which Bush spoke of in his January 10 speech announcing the surge. Those benchmarks, which the commission called milestones, include requirements that the Iraqi government take certain actions: send more of its own troops to Baghdad; cut back on political interference with the tactical decisions of Iraqi commanders; disarm the militias; assure the protection of minority rights in the parliament; share oil revenue among the regions; and allow former Baath Party members to serve in the government and army, undoing the postwar folly of occupation chief Jerry Bremer’s “de-Baathification.”

The requirement that the Iraqi government meet the benchmarks was inserted in both the Senate and House bills in order to attract centrist and conservative Democrats’ votes. Since Bush had earlier agreed to them, this gave members of Congress a nonpartisan hook on which to hang their votes for the resolution. The House leaders, seeking to win over the votes of both the liberal and conservative Democrats, made the end of August 2008 a mandatory date for completing a phased withdrawal, but also included an earlier withdrawal date of December 31 of this year unless the President certifies that the Iraqi government has made sufficient progress on the benchmarks by the end of July. (The Democrats do not doubt that he will do so.)

  1. 1

    For a superb description of how this has affected US society, and the flaws in the administration’s reasoning, see Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Terrorized by ‘War on Terror’,” The Washington Post, March 25, 2007.

  2. 2

    See Walter Dellinger and Christopher Schroeder, “The Purse Isn’t Congress’s Only Weapon,” The New York Times, March 14, 2007.

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