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War Funding Vote Allowed Dignified Debate

On July 26, the House Democratic leadership summoned the Rules Committee to a 6:30 p.m. “emergency meeting” to pave the way for a concurrent resolution by Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) directing the president to withdraw all U.S. troops from Pakistan in 30 days.

[IMGCAP(1)]The U.S. military had not invaded Pakistan, nor did the introduction of the resolution on July 22 trigger mandatory floor consideration under Section 5(c) of the 1973 War Powers Resolution as Kucinich repeatedly claimed. So what was the emergency?

Judging from the House floor debate the next day, the emergency was precipitated by anti-war Members’ distress that the House was scheduled to consider that day the $60 billion disaster relief and war supplemental appropriations bill passed by the Senate. This was notwithstanding revelations in the just-released WikiLeaks document dump: The war in Afghanistan is not going as well as hoped, and our allies in the region are not performing as well as expected. (This came as a shock to anyone not following the news this past year).

Adding interest to intrigue, the House leadership decided to schedule the war supplemental under the “suspension of the rules” process (no, there is no “suspension calendar”) that allows just 40 minutes of debate and no amendments, and requires a two-thirds vote for passage.

The suspension process is ordinarily reserved for noncontroversial measures that do not violate Democratic Caucus guidelines against suspension bills costing more than $100 million in any fiscal year. The multibillion-dollar supplemental was obviously in a different league from the usual low-cost suspensions naming post offices after local luminaries. But such exceptions are the prerogative of the majority leadership after consultation with the minority.

What made this a questionable procedural move was that a month earlier well over one-third of the House (153 Democrats and nine Republicans) voted for an unsuccessful amendment to the same war supplemental to require the president to set a timeline for withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan. That meant that to pass the bill under suspension would require support not only from most Republicans but from a near-majority of Democrats, including a fair number of those voting for a withdrawal deadline a month earlier.

That wasn’t just a high bar but a high-intensity challenge for all Members to seriously consider what was important at this critical juncture in our protracted military commitment in Afghanistan. One might speculate that the supermajority vote strategy was designed to lose so the anti-war forces could temporarily claim a pyrrhic victory (knowing the House could still instantly pivot and clear the measure for the president by majority vote before the recess). But majority party leaders do not bring bills to the floor to defeat them, especially when their own administration is behind the legislation.

In this case, the leadership designed a strategy that all sides would consider fair by allowing them to present their arguments to the American people. As with other war votes, it was considered a “conscience vote,” meaning no party whipping for or against. Moreover, the tight strategy forced Republicans to stay united and not play games. The bill was handily cleared for the president, 308 to 181 — 26 votes more than the two-thirds needed.

Scheduling the Kucinich concurrent resolution on withdrawing from Pakistan was simply an additional confidence-building measure by the leadership to affirm its commitment to a fair and open debate. Last March, Kucinich offered a similar resolution on Afghanistan that was overwhelmingly rejected, 65 to 356 (this time around he garnered just 38 votes). As with the March resolution, this one claimed to be “directing the President, pursuant to section 5(c) of the War Powers Resolution, to remove the United States Armed Forces” from the war zone.

However, as I pointed out in a column in January, Section 5(c) of the War Powers Resolution is only operable if U.S. troops have been introduced into hostilities or imminent hostilities, there has not been a declaration of war or a statutory authorization, and the concurrent resolution of withdrawal has been reported by the Foreign Affairs Committee, which it must do within 15 days of introduction. The Kucinich resolutions did not meet the latter two criteria: a use of force authorization was in effect to go after those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, and no attempt was made to wait for a committee report.

Despite claims the resolutions were statutorily privileged, it was the Rules Committee — not the War Powers Resolution — that gave them privilege for floor consideration with a special rule, and that always trumps the regular order. No violation of House rules or the war powers law can be charged because the Rules Committee can make up a new regular order as it goes along. That’s its job.

A privileged war powers resolution was the fiction maintained during both Kucinich exercises so that the House could focus on the larger issues of war and peace. Procedural objections were not raised because everyone agreed on the need for more deliberations on the country’s national security commitments. And everyone presented his or her arguments with dignity.

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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