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Iraq Issue Will Percolate Through the Summer

As debate on spending and the president’s Iraq strategy looms on the Congressional horizon this week, the new Democratic majority will take its first whacks at what likely will be the two most important policy debates of this Congress. [IMGCAP(1)]

With the expected House vote on a fiscal 2007 spending resolution and the beginning of Senate debate on a nonbinding resolution criticizing President Bush’s decision to send more troops to Iraq, Democrats will be giving a peek into the direction they plan to take the country on both domestic and foreign policy.

Though Senators will be on the record as supporting or opposing the president when they vote on the Iraq resolution this week or next, a vote on a nonbinding resolution has no teeth outside the realm of public opinion. Democrats will really make their mark on foreign policy and the conduct of the Iraq War in binding votes later this year — starting first with the supplemental war spending bill in the next month or so.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) repeatedly has said that the important votes on Iraq will come when Congress takes up the expected $100 billion-plus supplemental war spending bill.

“That’s the money. That’s the real thing,” McConnell said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

McConnell also said the supplemental debate would be “a few months down the road,” leading to speculation Monday that the White House and Republicans wanted to give the president some time to deploy the 21,500 additional troops to Iraq before Democrats could potentially force a vote on whether to cut off funding for such a move or to demand that the president get Congressional approval for any troop increases in the region.

One Republican leadership aide acknowledged, “There will be a lot of opportunities to debate and for people to go on the record” on Iraq. However, Senate GOP leaders are angling to make sure that “this new strategy has an opportunity to go into effect before the real votes are taken,” the aide said.

But Democrats can afford to be flexible in their response to events as they unfold in Iraq.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said “any legislation coming down the pike” could be a vehicle for Congress to weigh in on the evolving situation in Iraq. But he cautioned that Democratic Senate leaders were taking this “one step at a time. The focus right now is getting a strong vote on a Sense of the Senate resolution.”

Even if Democrats decide not to amend, say, their prescription drug bill or student loan measure with Iraq policy dictates, there will be plenty of regular defense and foreign policy-related measures on which they can remind the president of their disdain for his handling of the Iraq War.

Not the least of those will be the 2008 budget blueprint this spring. Democrats are expected to insist that the president incorporate the Iraq War costs into the official budget, rather than funding it through off-budget supplemental spending measures.

Then, this summer, Congress is likely to begin debating 2008 spending bills for the Defense and State departments along with separate authorization measures for each Cabinet agency.

Meanwhile, the House vote on a scaled-down omnibus spending resolution this week likely will include increased funding for many Democratic-favored government programs, particularly in education, general health care, and veterans’ health care. But without earmarks and under a relatively austere $463 billion spending cap, Democratic appropriators and leaders won’t have nearly the leeway to put their policy stamp on spending bills that they will in both the supplemental and the regular fiscal 2008 appropriations bills.

“In order to take the first step toward addressing some of the most significant [policy] challenges facing Congress, we need to pass the [funding resolution] quickly,” said Manley. “More importantly, we need to begin the [2008] process by which we can protect some key Democratic priorities that have been underfunded by Republicans in Congress.”

But Republicans are unlikely to make that task easy. Even in the House, where the Republican minority has little power beyond rhetoric, the GOP plans to hold Democrats’ feet to the fire this week.

Given Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) repeated complaints that the former Republican majority did nothing to pay down the deficit, Republicans now are criticizing her for not doing more under the 2007 spending resolution to make even the smallest of dents in the deficit.

Rather than spending all $463 billion allowed under the 2007 budget, Democrats could save as much as $7 billion, conservative GOP Members estimate, by passing a continuing resolution that freezes government spending at 2006 levels.

“Democrats like to spend, and it used to be that Republicans liked to spend less,” noted one aide to a conservative House Member. “Now, we deviated from that somewhat, but we are going to come back as the party of fiscal responsibility.”

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