Ending the War: Time for the Dems to Play Hardball

Taking a page from America's retailers, President Bush is getting a jump on the coming battle over Iraq war funding. On Monday, he added an additional $45.9 billion in supplemental war funding to the $150.5 billion he'd already requested, and then turned up the heat on Congress to sign off on the $196.4 billion before heading home for the holidays. Only 60 more browbeating days until Christmas!

And you have to give Bush credit. Despite record-low approval ratings, he's unabashedly playing -- and winning -- the PR game on the war. By incrementally adding to his funding request, he made his ongoing plundering of our treasury to pursue his disastrous Iraq policy seem relatively modest. The headlines all focused on the $46 billion he's just added to the tab -- not the $196 billion he's really after.

And while his language about "supporting the troops," and "providing our troops with the help and support they need to get the job done" is well past its sell-by date, the Democrats have yet to reframe the funding debate. So Bush replays his patriotic greatest hits while the blood of our soldiers continues to flow -- in the process making our country not more, but less, safe.

The president was feeling so cocky he even pulled out the "s" word -- "succeed" -- that had been in cold storage for a while. "Our men and women on the front lines should not be caught in the middle of partisan disagreements in Washington, D.C.," he said. "[Congress] ought to make sure our troops have what it takes to succeed." Whatever that means in Iraq these days.

The Democrats meanwhile remain divided and confounded on how to stand up to the president on Iraq. House invertebrates like Steny Hoyer, who foolishly think ducking for cover is a winning '08 strategy, are urging a cautious approach, suggesting that any hardball stop-the-war efforts will leave red state Dems vulnerable to attacks for undermining the troops.

Senate leaders, including Carl Levin, are also treading lightly. Levin's latest gambit: put Bush on the installment plan, giving him only part of the money and forcing him to come asking for more in June, after the next Congressionally mandated report from Gen. Petraeus (September redux?). Levin's plan would also aim for a complete withdrawal from Iraq within nine months -- but this would only be a goal, not a date certain requirement.

Hey, why accomplish today what you can put off until tomorrow -- or June?

And some Democrats just seem resigned to the notion that their options are limited. As Henry Waxman told Politico: "If you don't have the votes, you don't have the votes." It's what David Sirota calls the "Innocent Bystander Fable" -- the idea that since Democrats don't have the 60 votes needed to end Senate debate or the 66 votes needed to override a Bush veto, the war in Iraq is out of their hands.

But the truth is, Democrats have all the votes they need to stop the war -- if they are willing to use the power given them by the Constitution to block the supplemental funding bill unless it includes a deadline for bringing the troops home. As Norm Ornstein told me: "Whatever the White House sends to the House is constitutionally merely a suggestion." The prerogative to bring a funding bill to the floor rests entirely with the majority -- which, in case Democrats have forgotten, is theirs. As for the Senate, Democrats there would only have to find 41 votes to block the supplemental funding bill.

I'm sorry for this refresher in Congressional Power 101, but Democratic leaders seem to need it. The White House cannot force Congress to spend money. Period. The end. The imperial presidency has not gone that far. At least not yet. So Democrats, who have the public behind them, need to be unequivocal that they are simply not going to continue to fund the war unless and until the president agrees to change course and set a date certain for ending it.

They need to make it clear that they are not pulling the plug on the troops -- indeed, they will be authorizing bridge funding for armored vehicles and veterans' health benefits, among other essential expenses, when they take up the annual defense appropriations bill in December. And they can make it clear that they will give the president and the Pentagon all the money they need to safely and responsibly bring the troops home.

It's a battle of wills. A test of leadership. And a contest to frame the debate in the public's mind.

The president took a preemptive shot across the bow on Monday, playing the funding-equals-troop-support card, and placing the ball squarely in Congress' court. Democrats can't afford to sit back on their heels and wait until next year to take on the president (or worse yet, have a replay of the 2007 supplemental funding fight and cave to the president's phony "before the holidays" demands).

They need to begin reframing the funding fight now -- hammering home the message that it's the president's obstinacy that is jeopardizing the well-being of our troops and the safety of our country.

This is not the time for caution and playing it safe. This is the time to force the president's hand.


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