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Stalemate Over Funds for War Would Hurt Troops and Politicians

In light of current goings-on, it’s almost laughable — and also dispiriting — to recall how President Bush and incoming Democratic Congressional leaders vowed just months ago to heed the voters’ 2006 call for bipartisan cooperation. [IMGCAP(1)]

In his State of the Union address, Bush said — can anyone remember this? — that “our citizens don’t care which side of the aisle we sit on, as long as we are willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done.”

And, in his final press conference of 2006, he said, “The American people are sick of partisanship and name-calling.” We heard the same sort of sentiments from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Well look where we are now: Democrats are using Bush’s firing of eight U.S. attorneys to conduct a scalp-hunting expedition to oust Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and, if they can, cost Bush the services of his top political aide, Karl Rove.

And, much worse, Bush and the Democratic Congress are playing a game of chicken over Iraq and Afghanistan war funding — with the lives of American soldiers potentially becoming collateral damage.

Each side is betting it can win the face-off that will ensue when Bush vetoes the final war supplemental because it contains either a “hard” or “soft” deadline for withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and billions in extraneous pork-barrel spending.

On the merits, I think Bush is absolutely right to veto any bill that contains a fixed timeline for troop withdrawals, but he also should be meeting on an urgent basis with Democrats to work out a no-timeline bill (if he can) instead of meeting only with Republicans and making defiant speeches.

Both sides are likening the current conflict to — or differentiating it from — the 1995 budget face-off between President Bill Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), which led to two government shutdowns and which Clinton indubitably won.

Though badly battered in the 1994 Congressional elections, Clinton had recouped during 1995 to a Gallup approval rating of 53 percent as he dueled with Gingrich’s new GOP majority in Congress. In November, Clinton vetoed a GOP funding bill that contained cuts in the growth of Medicare, triggering the government-wide shutdowns.

In the memory of one current House GOP leader who lived through those times, “we resurrected Bill Clinton. I think President Bush has an opportunity to do the same for himself if he stands up and fights over the issue of winning in Iraq and bringing some fiscal discipline to this place.

“It is a way for him to win,” he said. “And, of course, it will help if the Pentagon moans and groans and screams, although they do have the ability to move money around at least until Memorial Day or later.”

In Republican thinking, Bush — like Clinton in 1995 — has the presidential “bully pulpit,” especially with Congress in recess, and can mount a forceful public relations campaign, accusing Democrats of overreaching, micromanaging U.S. strategy in Iraq, and validating their party’s stereotypes for being weak on national security and profligate in spending.

The White House will use the argument —persuasive to me — that U.S. troop commander Gen. David Petraeus deserves a chance to pacify Iraq with his new counter-insurgency strategy, that there actually are signs that it’s working, and that Democrats are guaranteeing defeat by insisting on early troop withdrawals and setting dates for full departure of combat troops.

Democrats have a totally different take on the 1995 parallel. As House Democratic Caucus Chairman and former Clinton White House aide Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) put it in an interview, “Let’s compare. Bill Clinton, 53 percent. George W. Bush, 34 percent. Clinton, defending Medicare. Bush, defending the Iraq War.

“Bill Clinton, the first thing he did was say to the Republicans, ‘Come down to the White House for a meeting.’ First thing that Bush did was say, ‘I’m vetoing. I’m vetoing.’ What’s more, Nancy is at 52 percent approval while Newt was at 50 percent disapproval.

“If we overreach, that’s one thing. But right now Bush is starting where Gingrich was and we are starting where Clinton was.” Emanuel would not define “overreaching” or predict what the endgame would be, but he denounced the president’s motives.

“You can give him what he wants and he’ll still veto. He wants a veto. That’s all he wants. They are vetoing because they think it will give them political relevancy. He’s down in the dumps and he thinks this makes him powerful. It’s politics that’s driving this.”

To me, it’s clear that it’s not just politics. Bush has perhaps until the end of summer to wrest his Iraq policy from the jaws of catastrophe, and he genuinely believes that setting withdrawal deadlines will demoralize U.S. troops and the Iraqi government and encourage the enemy to bide its time until the U.S. is gone.

And the Democrats could overreach, especially if the party’s left wing sees a stalemate on the war funding bill as an opportunity to stop the war and if moderates let their enmity for Bush and his war policy dig them into intransigence.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has declared that if funding isn’t provided by May 15, replacement forces for Iraq won’t be trained and equipped, tours in Iraq will have to be extended, and equipment needed there can’t be supplied.

Gates undoubtedly can reprogram Pentagon funding to keep the troops supplied longer, but at some point the money will run out. There needs to be a deal. Arguably, Bush could accept a nonbinding, nonspecific statement of goals for eventual U.S. withdrawals and the memorializing of his own stated benchmarks for progress in Iraq.

Democrats have said that they will supply money for the troops and their budget contains all that Bush has asked for and more. They’ve also appealed to Bush to talk with them about compromises. What constitutes “pork” is a flexible matter if there ever was one.

So, it behooves both sides to begin acting like serious statesmen and stateswomen in this crucial matter and quit playing politics with the lives of U.S. soldiers.

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