A day before President Bush is to address the nation on Iraq, congressional Democrats moved Tuesday to pre-empt his plan to send thousands more troops to Baghdad by denying him the money to pay for it.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., took the opening shot in the first head-to-head confrontation between the president and the newly Democratic Congress, proposing legislation that would bar funding for new troops.
NBC News has reported that Bush will announce the deployment of 20,000 more troops and push a new program to speed reconstruction and provide jobs for Iraqis in his nationally televised address Wednesday night. A senior defense official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity that the first of those troops would be in the country before the end of the month .
Congress voted to authorize the Iraq war in October 2002, but Kennedy, expanding on a theme anti-war Democrats have developed in the last few weeks, maintained Wednesday that the mission had changed so sharply that Bush must seek a new vote to authorize further military deployments.
The 2002 resolution “was primarily focused on the fact that Saddam [Hussein] presented an imminent threat to the United States militarily, and Saddam is no longer there,” Kennedy said in an interview on MSNBC’s “Hardball.” “About the alliances between Saddam and al-Qaida, which the 9/11 commission dismissed, and about the weapons of mass destruction, which weren’t there. So all of the tenets of that authorization have effectually left.”
Move would cut off funding
Kennedy’s measure would use Congress’ budget authority to force Bush to seek congressional approval for new troops, blocking any new spending “until the Congress of the United States, the Senate of the United States, votes in favor of it,” he said.
“I do believe that the country is demanding accountability,” said Kennedy, who called the war “the overarching issue of our times.”
Kennedy drew a parallel with the U.S. war in Vietnam, saying Congress must not make the same mistake it made when it was slow to confront President Lyndon Johnson during the 1960s.
“The similarity between the Vietnam War and the Iraq war is that we had military leaders [and] President Johnson that believed there is a military solution to the Vietnamese war, and now we have a president that believes there is just a military solution to the age-old strife that has been going on for 1,300 years between the Sunnis, primarily, and the Shia,” Kennedy said.
“The military has done everything it has been asked to do, and those fighting men and women have done it with extraordinary courage,” he added. “But we are asking them to do things which they are not prepared to do, and that is to try to resolve a civil war. That is wrong to ask them to do it, and it’s perpetuating American involvement.”
Divisions among Democrats
Kennedy said he expected a vote on the measure, which would take the form of an amendment to an appropriations bill, within three weeks.
By lending his name to the measure, Kennedy will force congressional Democrats to confront their own divisions. While they are eager to take on the president in light of public opinion polls showing that more than 60 percent of Americans oppose increasing troop levels, they are at odds over how to do it.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have endorsed freezing funding for new troops, but other key Democrats are skeptical that they have the power to do so.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, told NBC News on Wednesday that “as a matter of constitutionality” he did not believe Bush was under any obligation to seek new authorization from Congress. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, made the same point Sunday in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Republican supporters of the administration's policy were quick to seize on the Democratic disagreements.
‘Going to have to make a choice’
“Democrats are going to have to make a choice here, and they’re going to have to decide where they stand in terms of two issues: Number one, do you want Iraq to succeed, and, if so, what does that mean?” White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters Wednesday. “And, number two, do you believe in supporting the troops as you say, and how do you express that support?”
Presidential candidate Duncan Hunter of California, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview on “Hardball”: “The president is the commander-in-chief. I think that our policy should go from our shores with one voice, and the fact that Democrats are going all over the place ... I think that’s a bad thing for this country.”
But Kennedy said voters in the fall election were “very loud and very clear: They do not want additional American troops put into harm’s way; they do not want American troops involved in a civil war.”
Even if his proposal is jettisoned for different approach, Kennedy said, Democrats have to come up with a strategy and do something soon.
“If we don’t take action in the short term,” he told “Hardball” host Chris Matthews, “this president will go ahead and order these troops over to Iraq, and then it will be too late.”
NBC’s Mike Viqueira and Les Kretman and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews contributed to this report.
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