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Congress heads to the big money vote on Iraq

Sometime in the next several weeks, each house of Congress will face a moment of truth on money for Iraq: they will have to vote on the president’s $100 billion supplemental request to cover this year's remaining war costs.
Robert Byrd, Joseph Lieberman
Appropriations Committee chairman Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., right, will manage the Iraq spending bill when the Senate debates it in the coming weeks. Dennis Cook / AP
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Next week’s House debate on a non-binding resolution criticizing President Bush’s Iraq policy brings the Congress one day closer to the real day of decision: a vote on whether to pay for the war or cut off funds for it.

Sometime in the next several weeks, each house of Congress will face a moment of truth on money: they will have to vote on the president’s $100 billion supplemental request to cover this year's remaining war costs.

With the action soon shifting to actual spending, rather than nonbinding statements, there will be the oddity of the Democratic foes of the war having the responsibility of handling Bush’s new request for Iraq money.

Spending bills are managed on the floor of the House and Senate by the respective chairmen of the appropriations committees.

That means that two vociferous opponents of the Iraq, two men who voted against giving Bush the authority to begin it in 2002, Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. and House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey, D-Wis., will have the job of shepherding the president’s request through to final passage.

The House Appropriations military subcommittee has summoned Army chief of staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker this Friday to justify the Iraq supplemental spending.

Byrd sees 'calamitous mistake'
Last week Byrd wrote in a letter sent out by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that Bush’s order for more troops to go to Iraq was “a calamitous mistake…. I fear that what we are seeing now is an administration intent on laying the groundwork for a wider war in the Middle East. That is why it is so important for us to reject Mr. Bush's plan for more troops in Iraq. Once escalation in Iraq begins, there is no telling what ruinous consequences await this nation.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Majority Whip Dick Durbin, R-Ill., gave some hints Monday night as to how they might approach that supplemental request.

“The supplemental bill is coming,” Reid noted on the Senate floor Monday night. “There will very likely be a number of amendments dealing with Iraq.”

He later said he did not know what amendments might be debated when the Senate votes on the Iraq spending bill.

But among the possibilities: Attaching to the Iraq spending bill either a limit on the number of troops in Iraq or an amendment criticizing Bush’s policy, like the one the House will debate next week.

A Senate measure drafted by Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., Sen. John Warner, R-Va., and others, criticizes Bush’s decision to send more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq.

Most Republicans joined by Sen. Joe Lieberman, the independent Democrat of Connecticut, blocked a vote on the Warner-Levin resolution Monday night.

Fund but disapprove?
Would it look odd for the Senate to approve more funding for the war and in the very same bill express its opposition to the war that it is funding?

Durbin replied, “There’s no clean way out of this war, OK? And there’s no clean way to vote on this. We’re just going to have to come up with something that is close to saying we disapprove of the president’s escalation, we’re not going to jeopardize the troops, and we’re going to find a way to bring the troops home.”

Democrats have argued that the 2006 congressional elections were a mandate for withdrawing US troops from Iraq.

In a fundraising e-mail last week on behalf of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told her party's potential donors that “congressional Democrats are working with urgency and purpose” to “set a sensible new course in Iraq.”

Growing impatience
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., said in his northern California district there’s impatience with the war and an expectation that the new Democratic Congress would end it. “People are saying that right now, not just in my district, but across the country,” Thompson said Tuesday. “It’s hard to understand why — if we just had an election — why can’t this change? I’m one who believes it needs to change faster than it’s changing.”

Thompson has voted against four of the five past Iraq supplemental spending bills and said he might vote against the current one as well, he said Tuesday.

Thompson represents a safe Democratic district (he won re-election last November with 66 percent of the vote); but many Democrats hold marginal seats that could be in jeopardy if they vote to cut off funding.

Thompson is also co-sponsoring with Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. a bill to impose a limit on the number of U.S. troops deployed in Iran and to require withdrawal of most troops by March 31, 2008.

Obama said Tuesday he might seek to attach the measure to the Iraq supplemental spending bill.

A mixed message?
“I don’t think it sends a mixed message” if it is attached to the spending bill, Obama said Tuesday. “What we’re saying here is that, to the troops on the ground, we have an ironclad commitment. We want to make absolutely sure they’ve got the armor and they’ve got the equipment that allows them to succeed.”

But he said U.S. troops “also have to have to a strategy that has the potential of working.”

“We are not going to allow the situation in Iraq to continue,” Reid vowed Monday night on the Senate floor.

But at the same time Democratic leaders have made it clear they will not try to cut off funding for the troops already deployed in Iraq.

Levin reinforced that point Monday night: “We do not want to withhold funds from the troops in the field,” he told the Senate.

What most Senate Democrats wanted this week, but lacked the votes to get, was a vote — separate from the funding request — on the non-binding Warner-Levin resolution.

What Senate Republicans wanted is a vote — with a 60-vote requirement — on a measure offered by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., that would declare that Congress won’t take any action to endanger U.S. forces in Iraq, including ending or reducing funds for troops in the field.

Problem with Gregg amendment
In Durbin’s view, the Gregg amendment “says we won’t do anything to deny the troops resources and materials. Well, of course we won’t, but if we decide to cap the number of troops that are going in there, does that violate the Gregg amendment?”

“They’re in a box; they’re in a big box, because of Iraq; they can’t both please the president and (do) what their constituents asked them to do.” That was the assessment of Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. of where most Republicans now find themselves politically.

The vote on the $100 billion in new Iraq spending will also put many members of Congress in both parties in “a big box” of deciding whether to vote to keep paying for an Iraq strategy they’ve repeatedly said they oppose.