With Democrats already telegraphing plans to approve the next Iraq War funding bill in May, Gen. David Petraeus’ latest visit to Capitol Hill lacks the drama of last September’s make-or-break testimony.
No one expects the series of hearings beginning today in the Senate to be anything more than a waypoint in the five-year-long conflict and a chance for each party’s presidential candidates to position themselves for the November elections in front of the television cameras.
[IMGCAP(1)]But Congressional Democrats have launched
salvos on side issues, like whether Iraqis should be forced to spend more of their own oil money on reconstruction instead of draining the U.S. Treasury, and whether grants to the country should be converted to loans.
The new wrinkle to Petraeus’ testimony this year is not so much the war itself, but the backdrop of an economy in distress, which Democrats blame in part on the tremendous costs of the war, even as war spending continues to pile up on their watch. Democrats say they are looking past Petraeus and hope that the rising cost of the war will connect with voters disgruntled over the struggling economy at home.
“We’re not looking at the surge, we’re not looking at Petraeus, we’re looking at the war in Iraq and the cost of the war in Iraq,” said a House Democratic aide, who noted a new CBS poll showing 89 percent of Americans believe the war is hurting the economy.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) predicted a mixed bag from Petraeus, with talk of progress on the military front and some positive developments on Iraqis meeting political benchmarks. But he predicted that Democrats will shift the talk to the economy, arguing “that the money could be spent back here at home given that we have a difficult economic environment.”
Kyl added, “That I think will be the change in strategy that they will pursue, rather than saying that it’s not working because the facts on the ground belie that.”
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) also ripped the Democrats for linking the war to the economy.
“To characterize our ongoing effort to defeat radical Islamic terrorists as the trigger for our nation’s economic downturn is cynical and irresponsible,” Boehner said. “While American consumers are dealing with spiking fuel prices today, these costs would pale in comparison with those they would face if radical jihadists — or the Iranian regime — gained the upper hand in the Middle East.”
Democratic leaders, meanwhile, angered liberals by avoiding calls for a timetable for withdrawing troops in a letter they sent to the president last week after spending all of last year trying to force one. Instead, they are urging a shift in the mission to what Petraeus has called “strategic overwatch,” in which more troops can come home,and there is a greater focus on the Afghanistan-Pakistan al-Qaida safe havens and a reduction in deployments to 12 months from 15 months.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), a member of the Out of Iraq Caucus, said Democrats need to show the public that they are fighting to end the war, even if they don’t succeed.
“What was totally missing is the central point, that our military presence is making matters worse and the mission now is to have the safe, responsible redeployment of our troops,” she said of the Democratic leaders’ letter.
“Shouldn’t we at least be taking a stand?” Woolsey said. “If I were one of those young troops, one of those soldiers over there and heard us saying ‘We can’t win anyway so we’re not going to even try,’ I would find that pretty heart-wrenching. What if they said that over there? They don’t. They give it their best. We should give it our best.”
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) also blasted his party’s leadership for the tepidly worded letter in advance of Petraeus’ testimony.
“Rather than calling on the president to redeploy our troops from Iraq, it endorses a plan put forward by General Petraeus that could entail leaving tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq indefinitely,” Feingold said. “Contrary to what the letter suggests, we should not be waiting around for a ‘political accommodation which will allow us to reduce U.S. troop levels substantially.’ We must redeploy our troops to break the paralysis that now grips U.S. strategy in the region.”
But Democrats, with their eyes on November, remain in the same box that they have been in since taking back the majority; most are unwilling to cut off funding for the troops, and they lack the votes to override the president.
Top Democrats including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) have argued against any further attempts to tie war funding to pullout dates, after last year’s efforts ended up with defeat after defeat at the hands of Bush’s veto pen and Congressional Republicans.
Even the party’s presidential standard-bearer from 2004 has thrown in the towel.
Asked whether Senate Democrats would try again to force troop withdrawals, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) told reporters Monday that it would be impossible to win.
“It is clear that we do not have the votes in the United States Congress at this point and that is what the Senate races will be about,” he said. “We don’t have the 60 votes and that’s what it takes to accomplish it.”
Meanwhile, Democrats plan to press hard on the aborted offensive in Basra by Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki’s government.
Woolsey pointed out the offensive occurred with minimal notice to the United States but resulted in U.S. troops being drawn into the midst of what she called civil war. “We need to ask the question of who does the United States military respond to? The Maliki government? They go and stir up trouble without our leadership being informed? Our soldiers have to put their lives at risk when the Iraqi soldiers disappear and leave their stations? Who is in charge here?”
Republican leaders have called the Basra operation a success, arguing that despite setbacks, it showed Maliki was willing to act to take on Shiite militias.
Democrats also point to plans for a pause in troop withdrawals this summer as another sign that the surge has failed to achieve political progress, noting that 140,000 troops will be in Iraq, more than when Bush announced his “surge” strategy in January 2007.
Kyl predicted that after the pause, troop levels will continue to drop. “I do expect the withdrawals to continue at a later date, probably by the end of the year,” he said.
Meanwhile, Republicans are warning that they will fight any Democratic attempt to lard up the Iraq spending bill.
Democratic leaders have called on Bush to join them in passing additional stimulus spending, including extended unemployment benefits, infrastructure projects and possibly aid to cash-strapped state and local governments. They haven’t yet said whether they will attach such spending to the war bill, although they have successfully attached unrelated spending to each of the previous war bills. Doing so could also give Democrats a chance to tie even closer the costs of the war with the economy.
“I suspect that that’s exactly what they’ll try to do,” Kyl said of a guns-and-butter combo platter. “I really resent it. In a sense it’s a blackmail … using our troops as a hostage to the Democrats’ desire to find more money for their projects.”
Such a spending bill could have trouble passing the House.
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said last week that he expects Democrats to try to add spending and expects Bush to threaten to veto the bill when they do.
And 92 Members, mostly Democrats, have vowed to oppose war funding without withdrawal timetables.
Woolsey said she will urge Democratic leaders not to mix war funding with stimulus spending: “If they put it all together, guess what, I don’t vote for it. I won’t vote for blackmail.”
Emily Pierce contributed to this report.