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Congress, Bush in test of wills

The Baltimore Sun

Washington -- With the Senate preparing to vote this week to curb President Bush's ability to conduct the war in Iraq, the White House and Congress are careening toward their biggest policy confrontation in more than a decade.

The last time the capital witnessed this kind of head-on collision between the branches of government was in 1994, when a newly elected Republican Congress took aim at a Democratic president and eventually forced the shutdown of the federal government. This time, a newly elected Democratic Congress is taking on a Republican president in an effort to force a drawdown to an increasingly unpopular war.

At the moment, neither side has much incentive to compromise, because the war is a signature issue for both. The president has wagered his legacy on the outcome of his decision to invade Iraq, and Democrats owe their control of Congress to voters angered by the deepening losses.

"I don't think either one can afford to back down, and that leads to the inevitable," said David Gergen, a veteran political strategist who has served as a top adviser to presidents of both parties.

The inevitable is a long-threatened presidential veto of a bill that would provide funds for the war but would also lay out a timetable for withdrawal.

When it comes, Bush's veto is expected to leave the two sides accusing each other of perfidy: The president will accuse Congress of cutting off funds for troops in the middle of the battlefield, and Democratic leaders in Congress will accuse Bush of stubbornly ignoring the will of the American people, the true needs of the troops, and the raw power of common sense.

Also likely is a scenario that drags the confrontation out for months, probably through the summer, with each trying to fix blame for the stalemate on the other.

The two sides are drawing those battle lines now, and it was evident in their rhetoric yesterday.

Speaking to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Bush called on members of Congress 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 I believe would make withdrawal and defeat more likely. That's not going to happen," Bush said. "If Congress fails to pass a bill to fund our troops on the front lines, the American people will know who to hold responsible."

For their part, Democratic leaders sent a letter to Bush suggesting that he is the one being unreasonable.

"Mr. President, this is the time to sit down and work together on behalf of the American people and our troops," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, wrote. "We stand ready to work with you, but your threats to veto a bill that has not even been presented to you indicate that you may not be ready to work with us. We hope that is not the case."

If neither side seems in a hurry to reach a resolution, one reason is that both have more time on their side than their rhetoric would suggest. Although Pentagon officials have said publicly that funds for the troops will start running out in mid-April, they also have acknowledged that troops now in the field will not be affected for several more months.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has said that a cutoff in funding would mostly affect replacement brigades, and most of them are not scheduled to be deployed until the fall.

Norman Ornstein, who studies relations between Congress and the White House at the American Enterprise Institute, said the confrontation "will play out over months no matter what," and that the "crunch probably won't come until August."

"If you get a confrontation over an emergency [spending bill], presidents almost always win those. He has the bully pulpit of saying, 'They're trying to tie my hands, blackmail me, and cut off funds.' He can prevail for a while," Ornstein said.

Moreover, refusing to compromise also would buy the president more time for his "surge" strategy to show benefits on the ground in Iraq.

"The odds of that are very slim, but they are not zero," Ornstein said.

If the scenario plays out as expected, the Senate will vote this week to adopt an emergency war spending bill that sets out a nonbinding timetable for withdrawal. Then Senate and House negotiators will draw up a compromise version of the legislation - the House's timetable was binding - and send the compromise to the White House.

When that compromise arrives, probably shortly after Congress returns from its spring recess in mid-April, Bush is expected to veto it.

At that point, each will try to lay the blame at the other's feet. How successful they are then may depend in large part on how the confrontation is framed now in the public mind.

One tool the Democrats could use would be to pass temporary spending extensions, known as continuing resolutions, for 30 days or so at a time. That would permit them to avoid the charge that they have cut off funding for the troops while keeping the heat on the White House to compromise.

But in the end, the confrontation may well wind up as a test of wills. Bush cherishes his reputation as a resolute leader who is willing to buck public opinion when principle is at stake. Congress is lead by pugnacious Democrats who chafed for years in the minority, under what was generally seen as a highly partisan and heavy-handed Republican majority serving a recalcitrant president.

Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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