Congress puts its marker on Iraq war, but how big?
After the House vote Friday that laid out a schedule for US troop withdrawal from Iraq, the Senate this week takes up a bill that outlines its own timetable for ending the US combat role in that conflict-riven nation.
Neither bill appears to have the backing to override the presidential veto that is certain to follow. But Democrats now controlling Congress say the power of the purse – and a roused US public – may yet bring about changes in President Bush's war policy.
Immediately at stake is more than $100 billion in emergency war funding that the Pentagon says is needed before April 15. In the absence of such a spending measure, men and women in uniform will face serious disruptions, it says.
"I've asked Congress to pass an emergency war-spending bill that gives our troops what they need, without strings and without delay. Instead, a narrow majority in the House of Representatives decided yesterday to make a political statement," Mr. Bush said during his Saturday radio address.
As in the House, the Senate debate is expected to focus on whether lawmakers should, in Republicans' words, "micromanage" the war in Iraq and whether billions in nondefense-related projects should be added to the war-funding bill.
On Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her new Democratic leadership overcame deep divisions in their caucus to hand Bush the strongest rebuff on the war of his presidency. "The American people do not support a war without end and neither should this Congress," said Speaker Pelosi, as she closed out the debate on redeploying US combat troops from Iraq by Sept. 1, 2008.
On their way to a 218-to-212 victory, Democrats added $24 billion to the $103 billion emergency supplemental request, including millions to store peanuts, grow spinach, provide health insurance for children, and remove asbestos from the US Capitol power plant.
Republicans, who held their caucus together with only two defections, called the add-ons bribery. "The sweeteners in this bill are political bribery, and our troops deserve more than this," said Rep. Sam Johnson (R) of Texas, a former US prisoner of war in Vietnam, to a standing ovation on the GOP side of the aisle.
The Senate takes up its own $121.7 billion version of the emergency spending bill on Monday. The bill requires that US forces begin redeploying out of Iraq four months from the date of the bill's passage and sets a goal of removing combat troops by March 31, 2008 – five months earlier than the House bill calls for. Unlike the House bill, the Senate version is nonbinding.
In an amendment to be voted on Tuesday, Republicans aim to strip language setting troop-withdrawal timetables from the bill. A similar proposal failed earlier this month by a 48-to-52 vote. Democrats, for their part, say their improved version of an exit timetable will fare better this week.
"The legislation contains critical improvements from the Iraq resolution recently considered by the Senate. Unlike that resolution, the supplemental legislation includes a series of benchmarks for the Iraqis to meet and also the inclusion of regular progress reports to Congress from the US commander in Iraq," Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia said in a statement, before his Appropriations Committee cleared the funding bill for floor action.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, a key swing vote, says he favors the benchmarks but still opposes an exit date for US forces from Iraq. On Friday, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut said he expects one or two more Democrats to oppose an exit timetable.
Senate Republicans also plan to try to strip nondefense-related expenditures from the bill. Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, an earmark opponent, says he will offer amendments to strip nondefense-related projects from the bill, starting with the $100 million added to beef up security at the 2008 presidential conventions. He will challenge Democrats to show "why we should borrow from our grandchildren to have a party," especially on a bill to provide emergency funding for a war.
Democrats acknowledge that they do not have the two-thirds vote needed in both the House and Senate to override a presidential veto. Still, the vote sets a high-water mark for the assertion of congressional powers since Bush ordered US forces into Iraq four years ago this month.
"It's largely a symbolic vote," says Norman Ornstein, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "But the fact that the House, even by a narrow margin, accepted the concept of a date certain [for a pullout of US combat troops] means something. It will have an effect on the structure of public debate."
The wild card, over the next few weeks, is public opinion.
Facing the risk of depriving US forces of funding in wartime, the White House is counting on Congress to back down and pass a bill by April 15 that has no exit timetables and no nondefense add-ons.
But Democrats say public opinion may swing further in their direction, even in the event of a veto and a showdown on war funding.
"It's public opinion that determines the outcome," says Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts. "People are very antiwar, and the greatest naiveté is too much cynicism, as when people say the public has nothing to do with this."
A subplot in Congress's debate over war funding is how lawmakers deal with nondefense add-ons for pet projects.
In its first test of new rules requiring disclosure of names of members sponsoring "earmarks," the House saw a spat over whether the spirit and letter of the anti-"pork" rules were met.
House leaders said last week that, in keeping with rules passed at the start of the new Congress, no member projects were included in the US Troop Readiness, Veterans' Health and Iraq Accountability Act.
Challenged as to why a $35 million add-on for NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi was not listed as an earmark, Rep. David Obey (D) of Michigan said, "An earmark is something that is requested by an individual member. This item was not requested by any individual member. It was put in the bill by me." (Rep. Gene Taylor (D) of Mississippi, in whose district the funds would be spent, did not support the bill.)
The move violates the spirit, if not the letter, of new House rules, say budget watchdog groups.
"It seems the commitment to reform was short-lived, as Congress fattens up the emergency-spending bill with special-interest goodies," says Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a public-interest group in Washington.
Another public-interest group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, objected that Senate appropriators did not allow TV cameras or the public into their markup last week and that a transcript is not yet available to the public.
Below is a partial list of nonwar-related provisions added to the House emergency- spending bill.