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Senator Obama, Congress Has Many Options Besides Full Funding Without Withdrawal

Robert Naiman

One of the things that appeals to many progressives about Barack Obama's presidential candidacy is his background as a community organizer. It's not just that he can claim familiarity with the problems of the community that he worked in - it's that the experience of trying to organize people to confront such problems informs how you view the world.

How then to explain Obama telling the AP that Democrats would have little choice but to "fund U.S. forces in Iraq" without withdrawal timelines if Bush, as he has threatened, vetoes the supplemental?

The question here is not just what one predicts will be the outcome of the confrontation between Congress and President Bush. Obama, as a member of the Senate and as a leading Democratic presidential candidate, is a key protagonist in the confrontation. What kind of organizer confides to the media that when push comes to shove, his side is going to back down?

Obama's statement recalls labor leader Tony Mazzochi's saying about political bargaining: "If we bargained wages the way we bargain politically, we'd all be making five cents an hour." You don't go into a showdown announcing that if the other side hangs tough, your side is going to fold, unless you want to guarantee that your side is going to lose. This would be like a labor leader announcing to the media that his members weren't really prepared to go on strike if their contract demands weren't met. That wouldn't lead to a very good contract.

Besides, it's far from true that if Bush vetoes the supplemental, Congress has no option but to approve the same bill without withdrawal provisions, even if you take as a political assumption that Congress has to "keep funding U.S. forces," i.e., keep funding the war.

Consider what Congress has done typically in the past with regard to funding the government when there is a stalemate with the executive branch over the budget. The typical solution is to continue funding the government at current levels with temporary measures until agreement is reached.

Recall that the supplemental is ostensibly supposed to cover items not included in the regular appropriation that goes through the end of the fiscal year, on September 30. By October 1, the beginning of a new fiscal year, the next regular appropriation will be in place.

Congressional leaders "view mid- to late May as the deadline for completing the war-spending bill to avoid hardships," the Washington Times reports.

So, roughly speaking, to get to the next regular budget cycle - where Congressional leaders have been consistently saying that funding for the war should be happening anyway, Congress has to cover June, July, August, and September.

How much should that cost? A rough calculation: prior to the "surge" (which Republican leaders should now acknowledge that they have conceded is an "escalation" - if it were temporary, setting a deadline for the end of combat in 2008 should not interfere with it) the standard press estimate was that we were spending $8 billion a month for the war in Iraq. The CBO estimated in February that the cost of a four-month surge would be $14 billion. The Administration disputed that figure as too high, so for the purposes of this calculation, this is a conservative estimate. Therefore, $11.5 billion a month, or $46 billion, would cover the previous cost and the escalation through the end of the fiscal year, when the next budget would come into force.

So, if Congress wanted to continue funding the war without the withdrawal provisions, but continue to keep pressure on the President, it could provide $46 billion, about half of what is currently in the supplemental. This would shift the debate to the regular budget, where Congressional leaders have said they wanted it all along.

This is just one scenario. Congress could also appropriate $11.5 billion a month so long as the President refuses to negotiate. The point is that Congress has plenty of options besides total capitulation to the President.

Robert Naiman is Senior Policy Analyst and National Coordinator at Just Foreign Policy .

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