Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Dems show spine, but judgement is another matter

Ratcheting up the pressure on the White House, Sen. Harry Reid has co-sponsored a bill that would end funding for the Iraq war within a year.

Reid announced that he had teamed up with Sen. Russell Feingold, one of the Democrats' strongest war critics, on legislation to set a deadline of March 31, 2008, for completing the withdrawal of combat forces and ending most military spending in Iraq.

For his part, President Bush blasted the Democratic strategy, even as the military sped up redeployments to Iraq -- an example of how difficult it is to sustain current troop levels in Iraq, much less sustain the entire surge, which is only 40 percent complete at the moment.

Reid is pursuing a two-track strategy here, because Congress is also debating a compromise funding bill in preparation for Bush's expected veto of the recently passed measures. The compromise would dispense with timetables but include nonbinding calls for troop withdrawals to begin.

Republicans call Reid a hypocrite, because in November he said "We're not going to do anything to limit funding or cut off funds" for the war.

Reid, however, has his own explanation:

Reid had previously opposed setting a firm end date for the war, a stance he has backed away from in recent months as others in his party moved to increase pressure on Bush. He officially converted after visiting wounded soldiers last week at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

"Talk about a way to be depressed," Reid said yesterday in a talk-radio interview with liberal host Ed Schultz. "The American people, I repeat, have to understand what is happening. It is not worth another drop of American blood in Iraq. It is not worth another damaged brain."

You can debate whether that's a good rationale, but at least he's got one.

And frankly, that's just a distraction. Because this move is a part of the complex dance between Congress and the White House over Iraq. This is, quite simply, an escalation of that dance because Bush has refused to accept the timetables in the recently passed funding bills.

I think it's fair to say that where contrary views are concerned, Bush generally only responds to 2x4s upside the head. With this move, the Dems are contemplating supplying just such a piece of lumber. Bush won't accept timetables? Reid's response is "Fine. No timetables, no money at all."

Is Reid cutting off funds for the troops? He would say no: Congress has passed the necessary funding bills. If Bush doesn't like the strings, whose fault is that? The president would apparently rather not have any funding than have funding with strings attached. That's his choice, but he can't say Congress refused to give him money.

So it's a toss-up who would deserve the blame for a lack of money: Bush for vowing not to accept any strings on the money Congress gives him, or Congress for refusing to give him money without strings. This fight will be won on public opinion grounds: The winner will be the side that the public blames the least.

Constitutionally speaking, I think Congress is in the stronger place here: it's up to them to determine the broad outlines for conduct of the war, and up to Bush to carry out the mission within that outline.

Politically speaking, though, the president might have the upper hand. While Democrats can cut off funding simply by refusing to act, there's not much political support for an immediate aid cutoff. So a funding bill of some sort will be passed. Further, there's probably not enough support in Congress to actually pass the Feingold bill, so Reid's co-sponsorship of it is something of an empty threat. At best it's yet another sign of hardening Democratic resolve on Iraq -- a signal to Bush that there are more and worse fights down the road, and he had better start planning according.

Some side notes:

1. There are infinite wrinkles in this little game. Congress could, for instance, pass a temporary funding bill with no strings attached, allowing the larger ballet to stretch out for months and holding the threat of a funding shutoff as a constant cudgel over Bush's head.

2. I think the $20 billion in pork that went into the funding measures is going to do more damage to the Democrats than whether Harry Reid flip-flopped. I recognize that pork greases the wheels of Congress. But $20 billion was simply a ridiculous amount of money. A couple of billion would have been more reasonable.

3. Political timing plays a role here. Much of what is done now will be forgotten by the time the 2008 elections roll around. And for those elections, both parties in Congress want Iraq off the table. For the Democrats, beginning an exit from Iraq would be a feather in their cap with their antiwar supporters. It would also make the 2008 election more about domestic issues, a perennial Democratic strength. Congressional Republicans, for their part, would like Iraq to be a nonfactor as well. It's a drag on their poll numbers on its own, and also serves as a direct and highly visible link to an unpopular lame-duck president. Republicans will let Democrats take the rap for putting a halt to it, but unless things in Iraq improve rapidly they won't work too hard to thwart the process.

4. Many of the people criticizing the Dems for doing this are the same ones who called the Dems "spineless" and "unwilling to simply yank funding", and called the timetable bills "meaningless" and "symbolic." Note the rhetorical win-win there: If they refuse to pull funding, they're cowards engaged in mere "symbolic" acts; if they pull the funding, they're undercutting the troops, encouraging terrorists and playing politics with our soldiers' lives. The only acceptable course is to keep giving Bush what he wants. Bleh: partisan logic makes me nauseous.

As it turns out, the Dems were not only serious but they have spines as well. Whether that spinage is being used in a good cause is, to me, the proper area for debate. I think as a negotiating tactic, Reid's move is just fine. But I think Bush's surge needs time to show it can work, so any bill that simply yanks funding immediately is a poor idea.

As a compromise, Congress should consider a "clean" bill that funds Iraq operations through the end of summer. That gives the surge time to work, but forces Bush to come back and request another installment after the August recess. At that point we'll have a good idea of whether the surge is working and sustainable, and thus be able to make some hard decisions on continued funding.

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Blogger merjoem32 said...

It seems hat the war in Iraq remains a hot issue. I expect a lot of discussions over the war as we come closer to the 2008 presidential race. The fate of the candidates may lie on how this issue is resolved.

4/04/2007 11:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Harry Reid doesn't have the b's to do what he and other Dem leaders really want to do.....which is to cut off funds. So, they apply this strings attached, death by a thousand cuts kind of strategy to try and get their way hoping no one will notice and punish them for it next election. Fat chance, Harry!


4/04/2007 2:06 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

JP5: You say he doesn't have the guts to cut off funds.... why, then, is he cosponsoring a bill to do just that?

Complain about their policies. But the whole "Democrats are gutless cowards" line -- especially when the premise behind it is that they haven't actually done the horrible things you say they want to -- is nonsense.

4/05/2007 8:01 AM  

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