Published on
the Wall Street Journal

Obama Risks Liberal Backlash on War Funding

Greg Hitt

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama plans to request new funding from Congress for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he risks a backlash from antiwar lawmakers.

Mr. Obama is expected to seek congressional approval of $75.5 billion for the wars, perhaps as soon as Thursday. The issue is already raising tensions on Capitol Hill, especially among liberals who are sympathetic to the president's broader agenda but voice concerns about his timeline for withdrawal of troops from Iraq and his plans to beef up forces in Afghanistan.

"I can't imagine any way I'd vote for it," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a California Democrat and leader in the 77-member congressional Progressive Caucus. It would be her first major break with this White House.

Ms. Woolsey fears the president's plan for Iraq would leave behind a big occupation force. She is also concerned about the planned escalation in Afghanistan. "I don't think we should be going there," she said.

Similar sentiments echo across the House. Rep. Jim McGovern (D., Mass.) said he fears Afghanistan could become a quagmire. "I just have this sinking feeling that we're getting deeper and deeper into a war that has no end," he said.

Rep. John Conyers (D., Mich.) dismissed Mr. Obama's plans as "embarrassingly naive," and suggested that the president is being led astray by those around him. "He's the smartest man in American politics today," Rep. Conyers said. "But he occasionally gets bad advice and makes mistakes. This is one of those instances."

The supplemental-spending request is intended to provide funding for the wars through the balance of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, and into the early weeks of fiscal 2010. Beginning in fiscal 2010, Mr. Obama intends for the wars to be funded as part of the regular Pentagon budget. That is a change from the Bush White House, which annually sought war funding outside the regular military budget.

The bill is likely to run into political turbulence from more conservative Democrats as well. Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. John Murtha -- chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense -- has said he will look to add several billion dollars to the bill to boost spending on equipment.

The emerging rifts present a new political challenge for Mr. Obama. As a senator, he voted against Iraq war funding bills. In his campaign for the White House, he criticized rivals Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries and John McCain in the general election for their hawkishness on the issue.

As commander in chief, Mr. Obama made a surprise visit to Baghdad this week and praised the U.S. military's accomplishments, including the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the reduction of violence. Now he is responsible for keeping the efforts funded.

Democratic opposition isn't likely to block the bills, since many Republicans will support them -- if the White House can keep the legislation free of measures imposing stringent conditions on commanders in the field, and doesn't allow unrelated spending to be tacked on.

"Everyone wants to make sure our troops in the field have the resources they need," said Michael Steele, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R., Ohio). "If the Democratic leadership in the House puts together a package that does just that, they can expect Republican support."

The danger for Mr. Obama is that a chorus of criticism could stir new public unease with the U.S.-led wars. A public backlash could be particularly problematic for Afghanistan. Mr. Obama's strategy envisions that the U.S. military could be engaged there for years to come.

"The president certainly has a case to make," said Rep. John Tanner, a moderate Democrat from Tennessee who supports the White House.

Mr. Obama has announced plans to draw down U.S. forces in Iraq. Many of the 140,000 troops now stationed there would exit by the summer of 2010. About 50,000 would be left behind and drawn down further the following year.
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U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, meanwhile, would grow by more than 20,000, on top of the 38,000 already on the ground. The president argues that Afghanistan has been neglected, allowing al Qaeda to regroup and exposing the U.S. to new dangers.

Rep. John Larson (D., Conn.) suggests Democrats may be less inclined to joust with the current White House on the issue than they were with former President George W. Bush. "We have somebody that Democrats feel will level with them," said Mr. Larson, the House's fourth-ranking Democrat. But he says the debate will come down to whether Mr. Obama can point to a way out of Afghanistan. "It's more about the exit strategy," he said.

The administration has begun trying to build support on Capitol Hill. Last week, a team of top Obama advisers, including Bruce Riedel, who is leading a review of policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, conducted a briefing for members of both parties.

"We look forward to working with Congress to give our men and women in uniform what they need this year to do the hard work we are asking of them in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Kenneth Baer, a spokesman for the White House budget office.

But some members of Mr. Obama's party aren't planning to cooperate. Rep. Woolsey and two other congresswomen recently urged the president to set a clear timetable for redeployment of troops from Afghanistan and to reopen the congressional debate over what the U.S. role there should be.

"A clear authorization of the use of military force must be established," Ms. Woolsey wrote, along with Reps. Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters, both California Democrats.

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