As round two of the Iraq funding debate begins, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has launched a closely coordinated strategy aimed at capitalizing on apparent divisions between rank-and-file Republicans and the White House over benchmarks for the war.
As expected, President Bush vetoed the $124 billion supplemental spending bill Tuesday evening, saying the measure was “a prescription for chaos and confusion and we must not impose it on our troops.”
In response, according to Senate leadership aides and internal Democratic Caucus documents, Reid is planning a two-front approach to work on a new supplemental, focused on attacking Republicans and Bush for vetoing the first supplemental while simultaneously working to bring GOP moderates back into discussions over a possible bipartisan solution to the impasse.
On the political front, Senate Democrats are launching a nationwide public relations blitz lambasting Bush and Senate Republicans for Bush’s decision to veto the bill in order to “hold him and his enablers accountable,” a senior Democratic leadership aide said.
Before and after Tuesday’s weekly lunch in the Capitol, Reid’s “war room” set up facilities for members to tape pre-recorded responses to Bush’s veto for distribution to home-state media, as well as national outlets. Additionally, in a memo to Caucus press secretaries sent out Monday, Reid’s office asked Democratic Senate offices to prepare press releases and do national TV and radio hits on the Iraq issue.
The war room also asks that members participate in the Caucus’ floor speech program during Morning Business and give speeches criticizing Bush’s veto and highlighting the implication for military units from their states, the memo states.
Democrats also are coordinating with a coalition of anti-war groups on a “rapid response press conference” effort in which organizations will hold press events in targeted states criticizing Bush’s veto. Noting that “Your bosses will not be acting alone,” the war room memo states that, “Veterans, military families, grassroots organizations and other concerned citizens will respond within 90 minutes of a veto with rapid response press conferences in more than two dozen states.”
The targeted states include Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, Maryland, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Missouri, New Mexico, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Delaware, Tennessee, Georgia and North Dakota.
Organizations involved in the effort include Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, the National Security Network, Veterans for America and VoteVets.org.
Additionally, Democrats are working with the coalition to organize a series of protests across the country to significantly ratchet up political pressure on the GOP. A release sent out by Americans Against Escalation in Iraq on Tuesday evening indicated that more than 300 protests had been planned by Tuesday evening, while Americans United for Change has launched a new television ad criticizing the veto.
As part of his efforts to take advantage of flagging support for the White House among Republicans, Reid is actively encouraging moderate Democrats in his Caucus to reach out to moderate Republicans who may be willing to work out a bipartisan compromise on Iraq.
Although it is unclear which Democrats Reid has asked to begin working with Republicans, in the past Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) has been at the center of several bipartisan compromises on Iraq, which became the basis for nonbinding resolutions Reid eventually took up, and Nelson was the original author of the benchmark language in the vetoed supplemental.
While Nelson declined to comment on whether he was in talks with Republicans, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) is working on a plan with an as-of-yet-unnamed Democratic lawmaker. Snowe’s plan would include a set of benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet and a set of consequences if they failed to meet them. Although Snowe has declined to discuss the specifics of her proposal — or to say who she is working with — her plan is expected to include triggers to withhold aid to Iraq if benchmarks are not met.
Snowe said that while many Republicans in the Senate are unhappy with how Bush has handled the Iraq issue, it remains unclear whether she can muster enough GOP support to override a presidential veto if the White House rejects any consequences. “That’s something that remains to be seen,” Snowe said Tuesday, adding that regardless of the White House’s objections, “I think these benchmarks need to be measured by something more than progress reports.”
After vetoing the Iraq bill, Bush said of Hill Democrats, “They’ve sent their message and now it’s time to put politics behind us and support our troops with the funds they need.”
Democrats responded that Bush needs to show a willingness to compromise.
“We’ve compromised twice on the bill that the president is vetoing,” said House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.). “It’s time for the president to put something on the table.”
After House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) supported the idea of a “consequences package” for the Iraqis last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rejected the idea over the weekend and specifically rejected putting any consequences in the bill.
“To begin now to tie our own hands and to say, ‘We must do this if they don’t do that’ doesn’t allow us the flexibility and the creativity that we need to move this forward,” Rice said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
But Blunt and Putnam are so far sticking to their script, even as Senate Republicans also are starting to talk about binding benchmarks.
“It’s my view that the White House has been for benchmarks for the Iraqis and we need to have a conversation about what consequences there should be,” Blunt said Tuesday.
Putnam also said that he had seen Rice’s comments.
“I think it is premature to declare unilaterally that they should be off the table,” Putnam said.
Putnam said reconstruction money could be tied to the benchmarks.
“There’s substantial assistance that is going in there that is nonmilitary, that is helping the redevelopment,” Putnam said.
But Blunt again cautioned that Republicans will not accept language that they feel micromanages the war effort itself.
“Our Members will not accept restrictions on the military,” Blunt said.
“There is a way to solve the problem if they can cut the cord with the loony left,” Putnam said.
Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said that there is the potential for a bipartisan agreement if Republicans “want to start breaking ranks and listen to their constituents instead of being intimidated by the White House.”
Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) said he favors binding benchmarks on the Iraqis. “I think the fewer strings we put on our troops and generals the better, the more we put on the Iraqis the better.”
Smith repeated his frustration with the snail’s pace of political progress in Iraq. “It is unconscionable to me that we are having our troops referee a civil war between Sunni and Shia when their parliament goes on vacation for two months,” he said.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said that the newfound support among Republicans for binding benchmarks suggest that they are feeling the heat of supporting an unpopular president.
“After this veto, Republicans are going to be looking for something to vote for to change the mission in Iraq,” Durbin said. “Republicans are growing weary of supporting the president’s failed policies.”
Durbin said that benchmarks must have consequences for them to matter.
Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said that the issue could be resolved quickly providing that both sides were willing to compromise.
“This is not even an hour-long problem,” Lott said. “Folks have got to be willing to engage.” Lott also said that he could be open to backing benchmarks with consequences, depending on how each are tailored.
“I wouldn’t be prepared to reject that out of hand,” Lott said.
Nevertheless, it remains unclear whether Bush will eventually agree to some sort of binding benchmarks. A White House aide said Tuesday that “the president also supports benchmarks, as do the Iraqis. We recognize this is an issue that will be a part of the discussion, and we’ll welcome their opinions while also clearly providing our viewpoints. The president knows that reaching political and economic goals in Iraq is critical to helping solve the security problems — but he also knows those goals can’t be reached if the violence isn’t quelled enough to let the Iraqi politicians band together and lead their young democracy to stability.”
House Appropriations subcommittee on Defense Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.) said the split showed that Republicans are feeling the heat and will eventually submit to a timeline to redeploy troops from Iraq.
“In the end these guys can’t withstand this pressure,” he said, pointing to Bush’s poll numbers.
“He was at 64 percent when he said ‘mission accomplished.’ Now he’s at 35 percent.”
Emily Pierce contributed to this report.