ANALYSIS - Bush, Dems vie to frame war debate
By Mark Silva and Aamer Madhani
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published March 29, 2007
WASHINGTON -- Confronted with votes in both houses of Congress calling for timelines for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, President Bush faces a certain showdown with the Democratic-controlled Congress that threatens to stall funding for the war.
In an immediate sense, the president holds the upper hand, because Democrats clearly lack the votes to override the veto he has promised. But as the standoff drags on, Bush may need to find middle ground, because the Democrats hold the purse strings for financing the U.S. military involvement in Iraq.
Using unusually strong language that gave no hint of a compromise, Bush warned Wednesday that Americans would hold Democrats "responsible" for any failure to fund troops on the front line.
But Democratic leaders, energized by their successful push for timetables in both the House and Senate and emboldened by the anti-war sentiment among voters that handed them control of Congress last November, insisted it is Bush who must be held "accountable."
The battle for public opinion may prove decisive.
Americans have been turning against the war in larger numbers and expressing support for specific timetables for ending U.S. military involvement in Iraq. But if voters see Democrats as abandoning the troops, Democratic leaders likely would be forced to give ground to Bush. If, however, they see the Democrats' approach as bringing a sensible end to a hopeless conflict, more Republicans might begin defecting from the White House position.
The House last week voted 218-212 for a bill saying combat troops must be withdrawn by the end of September 2008. The Senate has a non-binding proposal calling for most troops to be out of Iraq by the end of March 2008, attached to a spending bill that is still under debate. Senate Republicans failed to erase that proposal Tuesday, setting a course in which any final bill will prompt an ultimatum of some sort for the president.
In the short term, as Bush threatens a veto and congressional leaders accuse him of stonewalling, the House and Senate must reconcile their slightly different versions of the bill even as they seek to find a compromise with the White House. The president, for his part, remains confident that Congress lacks the votes to override any veto.
And he has been warning that funding for American forces abroad is running out.
Bush: Troops need support
"The clock is ticking for our troops in the field," Bush said Wednesday in a defiant speech to supporters near Capitol Hill. "Members of Congress need to stop making political statements and start providing vital funds for our troops.
"Some of them believe that by delaying funding for our troops, they can force me to accept restrictions on our commanders. ... That's not going to happen," Bush vowed. "If Congress fails to pass a bill to fund our troops on the front lines, the American people will know who to hold responsible."
Democrats, convinced they have the support of the American public, insist the president can be compelled to change course. At a loss for a strategy to override any presidential veto, however, they are attempting to bring the force of public opinion to bear.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) firmly delivered a message to the president during a news conference.
"Calm down with the threats. ... There is a new Congress in town," Pelosi said. "I just wish the president would take a deep breath, recognize ... we each have our constitutional duty."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) insisted that the president must come to grips with the new Democratic power in Congress.
"We have done our constitutional duty, we have done what we believe the American people wanted us to do," Reid said at a later news conference with Pelosi. "If he is gong to stonewall us, it leaves us with very few alternatives. The speaker and I are not going to get into our options. The president has to look at his options. ... The ball is in his court."
Still, asked how Democratic leaders would respond to a veto, Pelosi said: "We just take this one day at a time."
The days are running out, according to the Bush administration, which insists the Defense Department must start tapping other resources in mid-April if it doesn't get $100 billion in supplemental spending it is seeking to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through September. The White House is seeking another $145 billion for 2008.
The key to a solution, some experts say, is what comes out of final House and Senate negotiations on a war spending bill, but congressional leaders have a powerful ally in public opinion.
"The president has time on his side, and the Senate and House have the people on their side," said Timothy Roemer, a former Democratic congressman and president of the Center for National Policy. "Most of the people in this country want some kind of new policy and different results in Iraq. ... In the short term, the president has time and the rhetoric on his side ... but in the long term he is on the losing side."
Bush, noting that Gen. David Petraeus has received only half of the additional forces he is seeking in Iraq, insists that the new security initiative supported by nearly 30,000 promised new troops has generated signs of hope.
Yet military experts are increasingly skeptical that the U.S. mission can succeed, and some question the administration's claims of progress.
Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, sees parallels in the Bush administration's portrayal of Iraqi forces to exaggerations made about successes in training Lebanese forces in the early 1980s. He also draws parallels to mistakes made in Vietnam.
"We have been where we are in Iraq before, and we have done great damage to other countries in the process," Cordesman told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
While Democrats draw strength from the November elections that handed them control of Congress, they also can point to recent opinion polls that indicate eroding support for the war and growing encouragement for their side of the debate.
Poll finds pullout sentiment
Nearly 6 in 10 Americans surveyed said they want their representatives to support legislation calling for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by August 2008, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted March 21-25.
"In the last election, the American people called out for a new direction," Pelosi said Wednesday. "Since the election, Democrats have brought the winds of change to the Capitol. ... We are holding the administration accountable for the conduct in the war."
The White House, for its part, insists that Congress may as well expedite passage of the war bill so Bush can veto it, as spokeswoman Dana Perino put it Wednesday, "then have discussions on a cleaner bill."
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WHERE THEY STAND
House: Has approved $124 billion war-spending bill mandating withdrawal of U.S. combat forces by Sept. 30, 2008.
Senate: Debating a $122 billion spending bill with a non-binding target for troop withdrawal by March 31, 2008.
Bush: Vows to veto either version.
House and Senate must agree on a common plan, with narrow votes of support in each chamber.
Bush is prepared to veto any bill with a timeline.
Congress needs a two-thirds vote to override any veto. But it appears to be far short of such consensus.
In a stalemate, the Defense Department must draw money from other resources if no new spending bill is approved by April 15, Bush says. Bush will blame Congress for jeopardizing troops. Congress will blame Bush for prolonging the war.
-- Mark Silva