For more than four years, President Bush has controlled every aspect of the war in Iraq. For more than four years, a docile Congress has given the president every penny he has sought to fight the so-called "war on terror" — the total is more than $400 billion — and it has allowed him to spend that money as he saw fit.
The results have been disastrous, as most Americans now recognize. In a Newsweek poll taken earlier this month, 69 percent of Americans said they disapprove of how the president has handled the war, and given the gross incompetence at war-fighting demonstrated by this administration, you have to wonder at the 27 percent who believe he has done well.
If this is a good performance, what on earth would a bad one look like?
Never one to be cowed by mere reality, President Bush is now insisting that Congress appropriate another $100 billion for the war, demanding that it cough up the money "with no strings attached." He wants the money, in other words, but he wants it with no input or interference from Congress in how it is spent.
Well, no. The answer to that demand should be no. And Congress may at last be willing to say that word to the president.
Last week, the House passed an emergency appropriations bill giving the president all the funds he requested for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but with the proviso that U.S. combat troops be withdrawn from Iraq by August 2008. That's still 17 months away, far from an immediate pullback.
The Senate is apparently ready to pass its own version of the funding bill, again with every penny requested by the president, but again with a set of restrictions and requirements on how it can be spent. If a fragile Senate coalition holds together in support of that approach, the stage will be set for a constitutional showdown the likes of which we haven't seen for a generation, or maybe ever.
If the schedule holds, the House and Senate bills will be reconciled into one piece of legislation and sent to the president's desk sometime in late April, about the time the Pentagon will start running short of money. President Bush will then veto the bill, keeping his promise to reject legislation that in any way hamstrings his authority to fight the war any way he wishes, for as long as he wishes.
Judging from his public statements, the president is almost eager for that showdown.
"If Congress fails to pass a bill to fund our troops on the front lines," he said in a speech Wednesday, "the American people will know who to hold responsible."
He's right about one thing — the issue will then be in the hands of the American people. Their reaction to a standoff between Congress and the president, with troops overseas fighting and dying, will determine whether the president or Congress blinks first, and thus whether this war will be allowed to continue at high levels for the rest of Bush's term.
In 1995, when President Clinton and a Republican Congress couldn't come to a budget agreement and large parts of the federal government were forced to shut down, it was Congress that took most of the blame, and Congress that was ultimately forced to cave in.
This time the outcome may be different, not least because the '95 showdown was almost inconsequential compared to what's at stake in this conflict.
This time, large majorities of Americans support giving Congress a voice in the war, which is basically all that congressional leaders are now seeking. The American people understand that the president is trying to deny Congress a role guaranteed to it by the Constitution, and that while Congress is willing to negotiate, it is the president who stubbornly refuses to compromise.
If Congress can force the president to negotiate, it ought to be possible for the two branches to work out a timetable that allows the current surge of troops to play itself out, for better or worse. It ought to be possible to agree that if the escalation proves beneficial and if the Iraqi army and government show real progress by this fall, U.S. troops can be sustained as long as that progress continues.
But it also ought to be possible to agree that if the civil war continues to rage, and if the Iraqi government fails to live up to its responsibilities, our troops can begin to come home, leaving enough manpower behind to ensure that outsiders don't rush to fill the vacuum we leave behind.
All of that ought to be possible, but only if Congress dares to tell the president no.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Thursdays and Mondays.
© 2007 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution