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Reid’s Moves on Iraq Resemble Mansfield’s Vietnam Tactics

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is a difficult read. One recent news report noted his Democratic colleagues were “stunned” by his support for a bill by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) to stop funding most U.S. military operations in Iraq in a year. That’s a long way from Reid’s declaration after November’s elections that “we’re not going to do anything to limit funding or cut off funds.” It’s even a stretch from the March 31, 2008, withdrawal “goal” included in the Senate-passed supplemental appropriations bill. [IMGCAP(1)]

Many wondered what kind of broker Reid could be in negotiations with the House, President Bush and his own colleagues when he’s moving to the left of them all. Reid’s staff made clear that his support of the Feingold measure was taken as an individual Senator following an emotional visit to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and not as party leader. Whatever the motive, the move seems to further complicate prospects for compromise.

However, “upon further review,” as the replay officials say, Reid’s behavior is not all that different from another Majority Leader from the West, the late Sen. Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.), and his efforts to set a Vietnam withdrawal deadline.

Mansfield became Majority Leader in 1961 when Sen. Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas) left the post to become vice president. Mansfield subsequently came out against the Vietnam War in 1966, shortly after Senate Foreign Relations Chairman J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) completed his riveting televised hearings on the origins of American involvement in Vietnam. Johnson, by then president, was stung by both friends’ perceived betrayals.

Interestingly, Mansfield did not use his position as Majority Leader to pressure colleagues to follow his lead. When voicing opposition to the war on the Senate floor, he would vacate his leadership desk and move to a less prominent place in the chamber to signal he was speaking for himself and not as party leader.

As Majority Leader, however, he would sometimes come to Johnson’s rescue on the war. In a 1967 supplemental appropriations bill for Vietnam, Mansfield trumped a spending ban for further troop escalation offered by Sen. Joseph Clark (D-Pa.) with a compromise supporting the troops but calling for an international conference to settle the war. A modified version survived negotiations with the House and was signed into law by Johnson. The Mansfield language was hailed as the first Congressional policy declaration on Vietnam since the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which Johnson used to justify the war.

In 1971, Mansfield again deferred to Fulbright to lay the groundwork with a series of five hearings on Indochina policy bills. The central focus was the Vietnam Disengagement Act introduced by Sens. George McGovern (D-S.D.) and Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) setting a Dec. 31, 1971, deadline for withdrawal from Vietnam. After the Senate rejected the Hatfield-McGovern language to cut off funds for the war in one year, Mansfield successfully offered his withdrawal policy amendments to two authorizing bills.

In June, on a bill extending the military draft, the Senate accepted Mansfield’s amendment for a nine-month U.S. troop withdrawal deadline. Three months later, on a defense procurement bill, the Senate adopted his amendment for a six-month withdrawal date. Because the House had no comparable amendments on either bill, and had previously rejected withdrawal deadlines, tough negotiations ensued. Mansfield worked quietly behind the scenes as leader to reach compromises acceptable to both chambers.

On the draft extension bill, the House agreed to a “sense of Congress” expression that the United States should terminate its involvement “at the earliest practicable date” and that all troops should be withdrawn by a date certain (unspecified), subject to the release of U.S. prisoners of war. On the procurement bill, the Senate turned back House attempts to repeat the sense of Congress approach and instead prevailed with Mansfield’s “policy of the United States” language. Once again, the specific withdrawal date was replaced by language calling on the president to withdraw all forces “at a date certain,” subject to the release of U.S. prisoners of war and an accounting of the missing in action.

Richard Nixon signed both bills into law while declaring in his signing statement on the latter measure that “the so-called Mansfield amendment does not represent the policies of the Administration” and “is without binding force or effect” because “it does not reflect my judgment about the way in which the war should be brought to a conclusion.”

Nixon concluded: “Legislative actions such as this hinder rather than assist in the search for a negotiated settlement.” Fourteen months later a peace treaty was signed.

As noted in a previous column, Nixon did not agree to a final funds cutoff for U.S. military operations in Indochina until mid-1973, two months after all remaining American troops had been withdrawn from Vietnam pursuant to the Paris Peace Accords. In June, Nixon vetoed a supplemental appropriations bill containing a provision by Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.) to immediately terminate funding for military operations in or over Cambodia or Laos (the president was still bombing Cambodia at the time). Congress did not have the votes to override the veto. But when Mansfield threatened to bring the language back, “again, and again,” Nixon capitulated and signed into law a fallback supplemental containing an Aug. 15 termination date (which is when Nixon said he planned to halt the bombing anyway).

Mansfield played “bad cop, good cop” on Vietnam throughout, taking tough positions at the outset as Senator, then working as Majority Leader on compromises the president could eventually sign (if not totally swallow). He was clearly focused on making policy to end the war. Harry Reid is following in big footsteps down a similar path. Unfortunately, with one eye on opinion polls and the other on the next election, it’s not clear he sees where he’s going.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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