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Iraq funding poses political risks for Bush

A new request for funding would also put Sen. John Kerry on the spot.Steven Senne / AP
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Bipartisan pressure is growing on President Bush to submit a new request to Congress for funds to pay for post-war operations in Iraq, a move that could be a big political gamble for the president as his fall contest with Sen. John Kerry approaches.

This week, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers told the House Armed Services Committee that longer-than-expected tours of duty for 20,000 troops "is going to cost us more money" than budgeted and that Pentagon officials are now figuring out how much additional funding is needed.

Last October, Congress passed an $87 billion spending bill that Bush requested for Iraq. The vote in the Senate was 87-12, with Massachusetts Democrat Kerry casting one of the “no” votes.

Bush administration officials had said that no new funding request would be needed until early next year, but with an increasing tone of urgency, members of Congress are calling on Bush to submit a new request.

On Tuesday, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of the Armed Service Committee, told Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, “In Washington, the usual measure of will and resolve is the budget.”

Reed noted that top generals had testified that “without a supplemental appropriation, by Oct. 1 they could be running out of money in critical accounts for this (Iraq) operation. ... When will the Department of Defense show its will and resolve by sending a supplemental up to Congress?”

Wolfowitz answered, “If we think one is necessary, when we think it's necessary.”

Although not yet calling for a new Iraq spending bill, House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said Wednesday he did not want the Defense Department to "start sucking money” out of other Pentagon accounts to pay for Iraq.

Risks for Bush
Bush would run political risks in asking Congress for another Iraq spending bill prior to Election Day.

It would give critics of his policy fodder for arguing that Bush has botched the planning for Iraq.

Democratic consultant Chris Kofinis said, “It should now be obvious to all that the Bush administration had no strategy to stabilize Iraq after the war, no strategy six months after the war, and now over a year after, still no strategy. A future debate about more money and more troops may be necessary, but the president must be compelled to outline his strategy for success first.”

But there would be a potential benefit, too, in Bush seeking a vote on new money prior to the Nov. 2 election.

It would force Kerry to vote up or down, putting him on the spot as he attempts to appeal both to voters who believe the Iraq operation is necessary and to those who think the continued U.S. involvement is a disaster.

For weeks, the Bush campaign has been slamming Kerry in its TV ads for voting "no" on the $87 billion supplemental last October.

Pattern of Bush switching
If the president does call for a pre-Election Day vote in Congress on more funding, it would fit a pattern of the Bush team saying, in effect, "No, we don't want Congress to vote” on an Iraq bill, then suddenly saying, "Yes, Congress should vote on it."

That is what happened with the Iraq war resolution two years ago.

Throughout the summer of 2002, Bush administration officials hinted that congressional authorization to use military force in Iraq might not be needed, since Bush had inherent power to order the use of force.

But after Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle said Congress "needs to be equal and full partners," and that it would be a mistake for Bush to act alone, Bush pivoted and sought a vote — a few weeks before Election Day 2002.

Daschle at first tried to delay a vote until after the election but eventually went along with it.

Kerry’s vote for the war resolution in October 2002 caused him unending problems in fending off criticism from rival Howard Dean during the Democratic primaries.

“That vote was the wrong thing to do,” Dean scolded Kerry in an Iowa debate last November. “It was an abdication and a failure on the part of Congress. And Sen. Kerry was part of that failure.”

Now the pressure on Kerry's anti-war flank is coming not from Dean, but from Ralph Nader, who derided Bush and Kerry this week as "two pro-war candidates."

Kerry addresses the cost of the Iraq operation in a new television ad his campaign is airing. “The American taxpayer is paying now almost $200 billion and who knows how many more billions and we’re paying the highest price in the loss of lives of our young soldiers, almost alone,” Kerry says.

If he were president, he says, he’d “immediately reach out to the international community in sharing the burden, the risk, because they also have a stake in the outcome of what is happening in Iraq.”

Divisive for Democrats
In the House of Representatives, the Iraq spending issue is far more divisive for Democrats than for Republicans.

Last October, 216 Republicans voted for the $87 billion request, while only five voted against it. Eighty-two Democrats voted for it, while 115 voted against it.

Despite the wedge that a new vote on funds would drive between Democrats, Kofinis emphasized that Iraq represents a series of nagging questions for Bush as well, as the president asks voters for a second term.

“What is the president's plan that will make Iraq more stable, how will the burden be shared, how much more cost will the American people be expected to bear -- these are the difficult questions the president and his team have yet to answer and which the American people will definitely demand by November," Kofinis said.