Democratic leaders will use the first week back from recess to renew their calls to wind down the Iraq War, seizing on anticipated bleak reports on Iraqi political progress to pressure Republicans who have voted in lock step with President Bush.
New reports are due this week from the Government Accountability Office and an independent commission headed by Gen. James Jones, and Democrats plan to use them as a launching pad to criticize Bush’s conduct of the war in a series of hearings.
But Democrats have yet to agree on a legislative strategy for a massive looming war spending bill. Bush budgeted $147 billion for war in fiscal 2008 and reportedly may seek as much as $200 billion. Democrats have been loath to provide anything but full war funding lest they be tagged as shortchanging the troops, but they have blasted the potential additional spending given the lack of political progress by the Iraqi government.
Republicans who have clung to the line that they need to wait until September progress reports to deflect questions on Iraq will have to come up with a new argument or take a firm position moving forward.
“They are going to have to make a decision on whether to move the goal posts,” said one senior Democratic leadership aide. “Spring could become the new September if they think that gives them enough time to abandon the president before the elections. Until then it’s hard to affect things because the president can veto whatever we do.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has sounded conciliatory toward cutting a deal with Republicans, while Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has promised that Republicans will get more chances to vote to end the war. Reid needs 60 votes to get anything passed and was burned earlier this year when Democrats raised expectations that they would be able to end the war only to cave almost completely to the president’s demands.
“I remain absolutely committed to changing course in Iraq and bringing our troops home,” Reid said in a statement last week. “There are a number of different ways to do that legislatively, but enough Republicans need to break with the President to give us the 60 votes necessary to do so. … I am willing and ready to help my Republican colleagues keep their word by working in a bipartisan way to change course in Iraq.”
Democrats have continued to float various proposals, from liberals’ demands that no more money be spent except on withdrawal to Rep. John Murtha’s (Pa.) proposal for a short-term spending bill tied to a start date for beginning a withdrawal but no firm end date. And some Democratic hawks are starting to emerge, notably Rep. Brian Baird (Wash.), who returned from Iraq urging support for the “surge” strategy. Still others have backed the idea of putting the Iraq Study Group recommendations into law.
The main event comes later this month, after status reports and testimony from Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are due.
So far, while some Republicans such as Sen. John Warner (Va.) have advocated a partial pullout to pressure the Iraqis, there has not been the sort of wholesale abandoning of the president that would be needed to get 60 votes, let alone the 67 needed to overcome a presidential veto, and some are heartened by what they consider to be solid military progress.
House Republican leaders are confident that they’ll be able to hold the line against defections.
“Democrats won’t be able to concoct a political equation that forces Republicans to abandon the principled stand they’ve taken all year, especially when so much forward progress has been made on the ground in Iraq,” said Brian Kennedy, spokesman for Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “The key word here is ‘political.’ This is about the safety and security of the country, not politics, and Democrats just don’t seem to get it.”
Republican moderates will be in the hot seat.
In a telephone interview Friday, Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) said he anticipates the House to be “feverishly engaged” in what could be a monthlong debate.
“The truth is September will be the month that we probably spend more time debating Iraq than we have since we had the debate earlier this year and perhaps since the war started,” LaHood said. “This is a very definitive moment for the war.”
The Illinois lawmaker said he expects the debate to focus more intently on the future of the “dysfunctional” Iraq government as well as pressure the Bush administration to offer a new strategy to correct current problems or find new leadership in that nation.
“To me, this is going to be the defining debate … It’s not going to be about whether the surge is working. The surge is working,” asserted LaHood, who said he would support an anticipated request of an additional $50 billion to continue to support the surge.
Sean Kevelighan, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, called talk of an increase “speculative.”
“At this particular moment the funds that we have and the funds that we have requested are deemed sufficient for the foreseeable future,” he said.
LaHood, among a group of moderate Republican lawmakers who met with Bush earlier this year to discuss the Iraq War, said he has sought another meeting, open to any Member, with White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten.
“The administration needs to give us a signal and a plan for what they think needs to happen, the way forward if [Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri] al-Maliki can’t get his act together,” he added.
Such a proposal seems unlikely to garner significant support within the Democratic Caucus, however, notably from the party’s liberal wing, whose nearly 70 members vowed in a June letter to Bush to vote against any additional funds for the Iraq War except to provide for the withdrawal of American soldiers.
While the inclusion of a timeline for withdrawal in the supplemental spending bill could potentially sway some of those members, the Progressive Caucus is awaiting the official reports on progress in Iraq before issuing any blanket decisions, a spokesman said.
Nevertheless, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), co-chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus, derided the anticipated funding request.
“The President is asking for yet another blank check to continue an open-ended commitment to a failed policy,” Lee said in a statement.
In addition, liberal lawmakers are expected to raise a number of issues this month, including closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, as well as specific training requirements and limitations for military personnel deployed to war zones.
In a conference call with lawmakers in late August, Democratic leaders indicated that several proposals — ranging from requiring Bush to submit a plan to Congress within 60 days to the deauthorization of the war — are under consideration.
In the Democratic radio address scheduled for Saturday, another prominent liberal, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), criticized the expected Iraq status reports.
“The President’s surge has failed and there is no end in sight for the war in Iraq. This is what I learned on my summer visit to that ravaged country,” Schakowsky said in a transcript of her prepared remarks.
Another set of lawmakers, including Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), offered a similarly bleak report Thursday after returning from Iraq during the August recess.
“Fifty billion dollars is something that I’m not necessarily embracing right now,” Meek said, and later added: “You gotta know when to say when, and hopefully the administration will grab onto that notion and begin to bring troops home.”