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Congress Comes Back With the Upper Hand

July 9, 2007 - by Donny Shaw

Defense Authorization Battle Begins With White House Weakened

It’s been almost two months since the Senate last held votes on the Iraq war. Since then, pressure from the public to change U.S. policy in Iraq has steadily increased and Senate GOP defections have become a trend, but has the debate reached the tipping point yet?

This week, the Senate will once again vote on a series of proposals to alter the U.S.’s policies in Iraq. But for any of the proposals to take effect, either the Senate will have to step up to a veto-proof majority (67 votes), or the President back down from his veto threats and “stay-the-course” mentality.

There are several reasons why senators who oppose the war are in a much better positions now than they were with the supplemental war funding battle, which ended with the President getting all the money he requested without any of the Congress-approved amendments to alter the war. First, as I mentioned above, Republican support for the war is eroding. In the past couple of weeks, three Republican senators (Voinovich, Lugar, and Domenici) came out with strong statements against current U.S. policy in Iraq. More GOP defections are expected. In May, when the Senate was debating the supplemental funding bill, the President’s “surge” strategy was in its initial stages and Republicans were hesitant to vote against it without giving it a chance to work. It has been months now since the strategy was implemented and little, if any, progress towards stabilization has been reported.

Second, the White House is required, as stipulated by Congress in the supplemental, to issue a progress report next week outlining the progress that the Iraqi government has made towards meeting a series of benchmarks. According to the Washington Post, the report will contain “alternative evidence” of the war’s progress rather than evidence that progress has been made towards achieving the agreed-upon benchmarks. The report could be further weakened by a vote expected in the Iraqi Parliament this week expressing no-confidence in Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

Finally, the bill that the Senate will be looking to attach their Iraq proposals to this week gives them a political advantage that they didn’t have with the supplemental. Congress was forced to capitulate to President Bush in the last round of Iraq votes because they were attached to a bill that provided money for the war. President Bush vetoed the bill when it had a troop withdrawal amendment attached to it. If Congress, and particularly the members of Congress who wanted the Iraq amendments attached, didn’t give the President his war money in a way that he would accept, they would have been left open to claims of denying funding to the troops who were already deployed and in harm’s way.

The bill they will be debating is the Department of Defense Authorization for 2008. It’s the annual bill that allows Congress to decides on the policy goals for the Department of Defense for the next year. In other words, specifically those of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D, NV), “Remember, this isn’t a spending bill, this is an authorization bill,” Reid said. “So we’re playing in our territory now, not the president’s.”

According to an article in today’s New York Times, the White House is worried by Congress’s new clout and they are considering withdrawing some troops as a preventative measure.

>White House officials fear that the last pillars of political support among Senate Republicans for President Bush’s Iraq strategy are collapsing around them, according to several administration officials and outsiders they are consulting. They say that inside the administration, debate is intensifying over whether Mr. Bush should try to prevent more defections by announcing his intention to begin a gradual withdrawal of American troops from the high-casualty neighborhoods of Baghdad and other cities.
>Mr. Bush and his aides once thought they could wait to begin those discussions until after Sept. 15, when the top field commander and the new American ambassador to Baghdad are scheduled to report on the effectiveness of the troop increase that the president announced in January. But suddenly, some of Mr. Bush’s aides acknowledge, it appears that forces are combining against him just as the Senate prepares this week to begin what promises to be a contentious debate on the war’s future and financing. …
>“When you count up the votes that we’ve lost and the votes we’re likely to lose over the next few weeks, it looks pretty grim,” said one senior official, who, like others involved in the discussions, would not speak on the record about internal White House deliberations.

White House press secretary Tony Snow was quick to deny that the President is considering a gradual troop withdrawal. The Times story is basically all leaked from anonymous administration officials, so it’s impossible to know for sure whether it is accurate. Tony Snow’s denial, however, is probably best taken with a grain of salt. The President and Congress are about to enter into some hugely important negotiations, and the last thing the President wants going into the negotiations is to have his insecurities about his position out in the open.

The Iraq amendments will be filed today and tomorrow, with votes beginning on Wednesday or Thursday and going into next week. Spencer Ackerman at TPMCafe has an excellent rundown of the amendments, their chances of being approved, and their political consequences. Check it out: A Handy Guide To All The Democrats’ Plans To End Iraq War.

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