Congress and the White House are locked in a high-stakes game of chicken over the war in Iraq, with no easy way out for either side.
If Congress wins, American troops could be home by next March -- whatever the consequences for Iraq and the broader war on terrorism. If President Bush wins, the troops will stay and keep trying to transform Iraq into a stable democracy -- whatever the cost in lives and dollars.
History, political calculation and simple math suggest that congressional Democrats will blink first, but that won’t end the fight. It’s a power struggle with deep roots in American history.
More than 200 years after the drafters of the Constitution split war powers between the president and the Congress, Americans are still arguing over the proper balance. The president is the commander in chief of the armed forces, but only Congress can declare war and provide funding for the military.
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The drafters knew the division of labor would be messy, but that’s what they wanted. In a 1789 letter to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson expressed hope that the Constitution would restrain “the dog of war, by transferring the power of letting him loose from the executive to the legislative body.”
Madison made clear his belief that Congress could end wars as well as start them. He even suggested that the commander in chief couldn’t be trusted with that responsibility.
“Those who are to conduct a war cannot in the nature of things be proper or safe judges whether a war ought to be commenced, continued, or concluded,” he wrote in the Federalist Papers.
Congressional Democrats couldn’t agree more.
They plan to send Bush legislation in the next few weeks calling for a phased withdrawal from Iraq. Slightly different versions of the bill have already passed the House of Representatives and Senate.
The Senate voted to require the nonbinding goal of withdrawal of all combat troops by the end of March 2008. The House set a deadline for withdrawal by the end of August 2008. Congressional leaders hope to resolve the differences and have a bill ready for Bush by mid-April.
Bush says he’ll veto any bill that includes a timetable. But here’s the twist: The withdrawal language is attached to a $123 billion war-spending bill. The two sides differ over how quickly money for Iraq would run out, but everyone agrees that the troops would suffer if the stalemate drags on.
“The president doesn’t have the authority to go into the U.S. Treasury on his own and cut a big check and send it over to the troops. That’s where Congress’ leverage is greatest,” said Christopher Schroeder, a law professor at Duke University. “The president’s leverage is we’ve got 135,000 troops over there who need to be supplied.”
Bush and his allies are working hard to ensure that Congress is blamed for any interruption in war funding.
“Congress’ most basic responsibility is to give our troops the equipment and training they need to fight our enemies and protect our nation,” Bush said at a Tuesday news conference, one of a series of events designed to increase pressure on lawmakers. “They’re now failing in that responsibility, and if they do not change course in the coming weeks, the price of that failure will be paid by our troops and their loved ones.”
Bush has other leverage in the standoff. The House and Senate passed their versions of the spending bill with slim majorities -- far short of the two-thirds majorities they need to override a presidential veto.
As president and as commander in chief, Bush has a big advantage as both sides try to frame the debate on their terms.
“Congress has a tough time because Congress is 535 individuals with divergent views on questions like this,” Schroeder said. “The president is one person. Once he’s formulated a position, he can be consistent.”
Some Democrats acknowledge that it’s only a matter of time before they deliver a bill that Bush will sign.
“Ultimately, politically, we have to give him money,” Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last weekend.
Democrats also have some leverage in the standoff.
They’re fighting a politically weakened president who is trying to defend an unpopular war. Plus, polls show that Democrats can rightfully claim the public is on their side on the issue of a timetable for withdrawal.
While Bush wants to frame the debate as a fight over funding the troops, Democrats want to keep the focus on their plan to bring the troops home.
“There’s going to be a battle in the next six weeks to frame this the right way,” said Jon Soltz, an Iraq war veteran and co-founder of VoteVets.org, a group that opposes the Iraq war. “There’s no perception that people who are challenging the war don’t support the military. If the Democrats lose that image, it becomes much harder for them to challenge the war.”
Polls underscore the risks for Democrats in the struggle to define the terms of the debate.
A Gallup poll in late March found that 60 percent of Americans would support a timetable calling for all troops to come home by fall of 2008. But only 36 percent would support cutting off funds for additional troops. Gallup didn’t ask about cutting off funds for troops in the field, but that probably would be even less popular.
“In terms of a timetable for withdrawal, no matter how you look at it, the majority of the public supports that. On that, the Congress is doing the bidding of the people,” said Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief. “On cutting funding, they don’t support that. They never have.”
Of course, public opinion doesn’t necessarily alter government policy. Support for the Vietnam War collapsed in 1968, but the conflict dragged on for five more years. Anti-war lawmakers offered bill after bill to end the war, with little success.
Although the Senate approved deadlines for withdrawal in 1971 and legislation to cut off war funding in 1972, the House blocked both measures. Still, many analysts think congressional action hastened the war’s end by fostering anti-war sentiment and pressuring President Nixon to order a withdrawal.
“There was no military solution to that war. But we kept trying to find one anyway. In the end, 58,000 Americans died in the search for it,” Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a veteran of the Vietnam-era debates, said during Senate debate on the current war. “Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam.”
Members of the new generation of anti-war activists say they won’t be deterred if Congress backs down in the current standoff. They predict that congressional support for withdrawal will increase in the months ahead if Bush’s latest plan for Iraq fails to make a significant difference.
“You have to look at this as a long haul, as a marathon,” said Soltz, the Iraq veteran who turned against the war. “Even if the Democrats back down in two months, they’ll put up a fight that the public supports. Either way, it’s a win.”
Moira Mack, a spokeswoman for Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, a coalition of anti-war groups, predicted that lawmakers would return from their spring recess with a better appreciation for anti-war sentiment.
“I certainly hope this fight right now can resolve it. But there’s a lot of people who really care about this issue, and it’s not going to go away anytime soon,” she said. “We’re in it for as long as it takes.”