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Bush will not back down on Iraq

NBC  News’ Washington bureau chief and host of "Meet the Press" discusses John McCain's status as a presidential candidate and the battle between President Bush and Congress over the war in Iraq.
/ Source: NBC News

MSNBC:  Before we get to Iraq, what are your thoughts on Sen. John McCain’s campaign?  Is he now pretty much out of the presidential sweepstakes?

Russert: He’s certainly a long-shot now.  He’s going to run a guerilla campaign off the land, trying to rebottle the energy and fire he had in 2000.  But definitely the one-time Republican frontrunner’s campaign is in tough straits and he knows it.  It will be fascinating to see how he performs in the next couple of months.  There’s every indication that if he doesn’t make progress by the end of the year, he’s a realist and he’ll take the appropriate steps.

MSNBC:  He had $44 million at one time.  He’d down to $2 million.  What did he spend $42 million dollars on?

Russert:  He spent a lot of money on two things.  Number one, raising money costs money.  Number two, he built up a pretty significant infrastructure with real estate and high-priced consultants and advisors. He was trying to run a Bush-2000-like campaign - assuming he could raise the kind of money that then-Governor Bush raised.  It never materialized.

MSNBC:  On the Iraq war, the president is losing support among Republican Senators at a rate of about one a week.  Then with the vote Thursday in the House, to remove most troops for Iraq by April of 2008, it looks like the Democrats in Congress will just keep nibbling away, doesn’t it?

Russert:  Yes.  It’s going to come to that.  The president made it clear in his news conference Thursday that he’s determined to see this through.  It’s going to take two-thirds of each house of congress going against the war and against the president to stop it.

He will veto every measure they have about troop withdrawals and funding.  However, if they get the two-thirds vote, then Congress can begin taking control of the war, if you will.

MSNBC:  Do you think they’ll get the two-thirds in each house before he leaves office?

Russert:  That’s the open question.

I talked to a Republican last night who said the president’s view is very clear.  He is going to see this through and until they get the two-thirds, he is very much in charge.  If, in fact, they get the two-thirds against the war with members of his own party turning against him, he will simple say, “Well, you lost the war, I didn’t.”

MSNBC:  So, without the two-thirds, Thursday’s House vote is just another symbolic gesture?

Russert:  The Democrats have not been able to succeed, even with some Republican defections.

It’s quite interesting what has now happened here in Washington.  The line’s been drawn.  The President is saying, “I acknowledge the country has war fatigue.  I acknowledge the majority of Congress is against this war.  But it’s going forward because I believe - as the commander-in-chief - it’s the right thing to do.”

It’s clear that unless there are two-thirds in both houses of Congress willing to override his veto, as long as the money is provided, the war will go on.

MSNBC:  At the beginning of the war some military leaders said more troops were needed.  The president chose not to accept those opinions.  Now it’s pretty much conceded more were needed.  Now that there’s such a hue and cry to leave Iraq, the president, in his news conference Thursday says he wants to leave the decision about the war to the military people.  What’s up?

Russert:  That’s a very important point.  General Eric Shinseki, the former Army chief of staff, in open testimony before Congress, said it would take several hundred thousand troops.  His views were overruled by Secretary Rumsfeld and the president.

There was also a considerable number of military leaders who argued against the surge, saying it would not work.  And the president overruled them

So, the president has sometimes embraced the views of the military leaders and sometimes, as commander-in-chief, has rejected them.

I think what we’re now looking at is the following: Members of Congress are going to go home for recess, go to the picnics and go to the barbecues and they’re going to hear a lot about this war.

General Petraeus is going to come to Washington in September and offer his status report.  Legislators are then going to make their decisions.  But I underscore, until there are two-thirds of the members both houses of Congress against it, the war will go forward.  This president is determined to see it through.

MSNBC:  If they don’t make that decision to cut funding, don‘t they risk as being seen as fearful, tepid and afraid of doing anything definitive?

Russert:  That’s why the Democrats will continue to keep putting these resolutions on the table for troop withdrawal and for cutting off funding, more and more.  They’re forcing the Republicans to vote, to be on the record.

The case the president is now making is, “If we get out what will happen?  Are we prepared for the consequences?  This is all about the United States versus al-Qaida.”

The Democrats today are criticizing that, saying, “How can he possibly say that?  Al-Qaida did not exist in Iraq in any significant way before this war.  And the CIA has said al-Qaida was not the major reason for violence in Iraq.”

But the president’s strategy was very clear Thursday.

MSNBC:  You’ll be discussing this Sunday on ?

Russert:  We sure will.

We have two key senators on the Armed Services Committee:  Jim Webb of Virginia, the Democrat, and Lindsey Graham, the Republican of South Carolina - two men with very different views. Senator Webb called Iraq a “House of cards”, particularly for our soldiers and Marines.  Lindsey Graham says the surge is working.  We’re going to see, I think, front and center, a microcosm of this Iraq debate with Webb and Graham.

And then, in our political roundtable, we’ll have the “Prince of Darkness”, Robert Novak, who has a new book, “The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington” - a very revealing memoir of the last half century in Washington.

All Sunday, on Meet the Press.