Democrats Draw Battle Lines Against Bush's 'Surge'

The balloons were still being inflated for the Democrats' inaugural bashes on the Hill last week when the bloody specter of Iraq appeared in the form of Cindy Sheehan. The direct-action peace mom showed up in the Cannon House Office Building last Wednesday with a handful of fellow activists, pamphlets, and no intention of letting the first news conference convened by House Democrats begin and end with yet another thumbs-up "100 Hours" boilerplate. As Rahm Emanuel finished talking up a bill to reduce student loan rates, Sheehan and her supporters made their trademark demands: "De-escalate! Investigate! Troops home now!"

The minor ruckus led Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank to declare that even if the 110th Congress doesn't accomplish much, watching the Democrats wrestle themselves over Iraq policy will at least be "entertaining."

Soldiers in Iraq and their families will likely find less pure entertainment value in this political theater than Milbank. As the president prepares to deliver a speech tonight in which he will announce a 20,000 troop enlargement of America's footprint in Iraq, the newly empowered Democrats remain split over how to stop an escalation and bring to an end the disastrous war many of them voted to authorize more than four years ago.

Party leaders have forcefully put the White House on notice that it faces organized and articulate congressional opposition on Iraq, but it is unclear what shape this opposition will take. Emergency legislation forcing a congressional vote on the latest "surge"? A belated hammer blow to the president's $100+ billion supplementary defense budget request, due in February? Or two years of finger-wagging and solemn resolutions in Washington committee rooms as the body bags pile up in Baghdad?

After a busy first week of the first session in which Iraq deeply overshadowed student loan rates, the question remains: Will the Democrats satisfy themselves with a flurry of subpoena-powered show hearings that do little more than further expose well-known failures and raise the profiles of certain committee chairs? Or will they fulfill their constitutional and electoral mandate to challenge the White House's arrogant claim on the lives of yet more soldiers and the many billions needed to keep the occupation's lights on?

One week in, there are signs blinking in both directions, with momentum building toward action over talk.

It was Pennsylvania congressman John Murtha who again was first in cracking open the Iraq policy pinata. In a Jan. 4 interview, Murtha endorsed the idea of denying some or all of the White House's next supplemental defense funding request of $100 billion. The idea had been bouncing around since the election, mostly associated with members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus like Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who has long maintained the absurdity of opposing a war while continuing to fund it. Soon after Murtha's comments, Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., a CPC colleague of Kucinich's, announced he would push a "long shot" bill to end funding for the war. "The only way we can send a message to the president is by getting right to the heart of the matter -- the purse strings," McGovern, the second-ranking Democrat on the House Rules Committee, told the Boston Globe.

But the problem with focusing on the funds, according to McGovern's senior Massachusetts colleague Ted Kennedy, is that by the time the next spending bill reaches Congress in early February, the "surge" will have already been carried out; the troops will be on the ground.

"We must act, and act now, before the President sends more troops to Iraq," Kennedy said in a major speech Tuesday at the National Press Club. "Or else it will be too late."

In a blistering attack on the war that has for the moment redirected the debate from funds to a new war resolution, Kennedy announced a bill, co-sponsored with House member Ed Markey, D-Mass., requiring Congress to vote before the president escalates troop levels in Iraq. The bill also prohibits the president from spending money on escalation without approval from Congress, but does not affect funding for troops already in Iraq. Kennedy said that he has spoken with leading Democrats -- many of whom are preparing their own resolutions -- and will push for a quick vote in the Senate. "We cannot simply speak out against an escalation of troops in Iraq," Kennedy said Tuesday. "We will ... meet the extraordinary challenges of our day not with pale actions, timid gestures and empty rhetoric, but with bold vision and high ideals."

As for the possibility that Republicans will charge Democrats with "losing" the war by denying the president his latest winning strategy, Kennedy thinks this is a nonissue. "If we can't run candidates that can beat that charge," he said, "then we don't deserve to get elected."

Rep. Murtha, meanwhile, has been mum on strategy since the Jan. 4 interview, and his office says he won't speak to the growing debate until he commences what he promises will be bare-knuckled Iraq hearings in his Defense Appropriations subcommittee on Jan. 17. In a recent television interview, Murtha promised his series of hearings -- one of more than a dozen on Iraq that Democrats have scheduled for January alone -- will prove "that it was a mistake to go in, and we're going to prove also that we can't sustain this kind of deployment." In a terse statement released last week, Murtha called the war in Iraq "the most crucial issue" facing the new Congress, concluding, "I will be recommending an aggressive pursuit of action that will allow us to reduce our military presence in Iraq at the soonest practicable date."

Murtha's counterpart in the Senate, Appropriations Committee Chair Robert Byrd, has not spoken to the possibility of "fencing the funds," but his office says the fiercely anti-war Byrd may address the issue in a statement following Bush's speech Wednesday.

That Murtha's "aggressive pursuit of action" could create a split between a bolder bloc of Democrats in Congress and a more hesitant party leadership was apparent when Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid dismissed the idea of cutting off funds the day after Murtha raised the issue. In a pointed but vague and ultimately toothless Jan. 5 letter to the president, the speaker and Senate majority leader preempted Bush's call for more troops by politely recommending the phased redeployment of U.S. forces in Iraq over the next four to six months, as called for by the Levin-Reed Plan and the Iraq Study Group report. The main points were reiterated in Reid's Jan. 6 Democratic Radio Address to the nation, the bulk of which was devoted to Iraq. Here, too, Reid failed to raise the possibility of cutting off funds.

Two days later Pelosi hinted that she might be open to exercising the power of the purse and playing some hardball, after all. Speaking on Face the Nation on Sunday, Pelosi again dismissed the idea of denying funds for current operations -- describing such a move as tantamount to abandoning the troops, aka political suicide -- but said she would take a hard look at the all options available for stopping escalation. The speaker suggested that a budgetary distinction could be drawn between funds going to troops already on the ground, and those used to expand the U.S. presence. "Congress is ready to use its constitutional authority of oversight to question what is the justification for this spending," she said.

If Murtha and Kennedy stand to one side of leadership's flank in the exercise of raw congressional power to end the war sooner rather than later, Joe Biden flamboyantly staked out his ground on the other during the first week of the first session. Appearing on Sunday's Meet the Press, the Senate's foreign relations chairman scoffed at suggestions that even a portion of Iraq funds could be choked in committee. He also dismissed the idea that Congress could tie funds in the 2007 supplemental defense bill to legislation capping the number of troops in Iraq. Moments before announcing his entry into the 2008 presidential race, Biden called the idea of spending caps "constitutionally questionable."

Except that they're not. As legal scholar and former Clinton administration Justice Department official Neil Kinkopf argues in a recent paper for the American Constitution Society, Congress has the legal and constitutional right to stop Bush's plans for escalation simply by passing a second war authorization bill. Funds going to enlarge the war could be killed by the attachment of a simple appropriations rider. The precedents are plenty.

As the Democrats figure out exactly how far they're willing to go on the protest-resistance spectrum, it's nice to see the party sans Lieberman finally united in urging redeployment in the coming months, with a complete withdrawal of combat forces by early 2008. But cautiously urging something and taking risks to make it happen are two different things, resulting from two different kinds of political souls. Let the battle begin.


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