The question is not whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid flinched in their negotiations with the Bush administration over the continuation of the Iraq occupation.
They did. Despite some happy talk about benchmarks that have been attached to the Iraq supplemental spending bill that is expected to be considered by Congress this week, the willingness of Pelosi and Reid to advance a measure that does not include a withdrawal timeline allows Bush to conduct the war as he chooses for much if not all of the remainder of his presidency. This failure to abide by the will of the people who elected Democrats to end the war will haunt Pelosi, Reid and their party -- not to mention the United States and the battered shell that is Iraq.
This "compromise" legislation is such an embarrassing example of what happens when raw politics overwhelms principle -- and political common sense -- that House Democrats have divided the $12O billion measure into two sections. That will allow Republicans and sold-out Democrats to vote for the president's Iraq funding, while anti-war Democrats and their handful of Republican allies can vote "no." Then both Democratic camps can vote separately for the second section -- including a federal minimum-wage increase and more than $8 billion in funding for domestic programs -- while Republicans oppose this section.
Presuming that both parts pass the House, they will then be sent to the Senate as a single bill for members of that chamber to accept or reject. The end result of this confusing set of legislative maneuvers will be twofold: Lots of House members will be able to avoid accountability for their votes, while Bush will get his blank check. Even Pelosi says she'll vote against the Iraq funding section of the House bill because it lacks "a goal or a timetable" for extracting U.S. troops from the conflict. But, no matter how she votes, Pelosi will have facilitated a process that gives the president more war funding than he had initially requested
But the real story now is not the refusal of the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate to hold steady in the face of the president's cynical claim that refusing him a blank check to maintain his war through the end of his presidency somehow threatens U.S. troops. That has happened and no matter what games are played with voting procedures, the reality is that the Democratic leadership has failed to lead at the most critical juncture.
The question that remains to be answered is a frustrating but significant one: How many Democrats and responsible Republicans will refuse to accept this ugly political calculus?
What we know is that there will be opposition.
Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who has led the fight to get Congress to use the power of the purse to bring the troops home, immediately announced that he would not follow Reid into the abyss of surrender to a White House that is getting everything that it wants.
"Under the president's Iraq policies, our military has been over-burdened, our national security has been jeopardized, and thousands of Americans have been killed or injured. Despite these realities, and the support of a majority of Americans for ending the President's open-ended mission in Iraq, congressional leaders now propose a supplemental appropriations bill that does nothing to end this disastrous war," says Feingold. "I cannot support a bill that contains nothing more than toothless benchmarks and that allows the President to continue what may be the greatest foreign policy blunder in our nation's history."
Anticipating the cynical gamesmanship of the debate that will play out this week, the Wisconsin Democrat says, "There has been a lot of tough talk from members of Congress about wanting to end this war, but it looks like the desire for political comfort won out over real action. Congress should have stood strong, acknowledged the will of the American people, and insisted on a bill requiring a real change of course in Iraq."
Feingold is, of course, right. But how many senators will join him in voting "no"? That question is especially significant for the four Senate Democrats who are seeking their party's presidential nomination: New York's Hillary Clinton, Illinois' Barack Obama, Delaware's Joe Biden and Connecticut's Chris Dodd. Dodd says he is "disappointed" by the abandonment of the timeline demand; if he presses the point as he did on another recent war-related vote, he could force the hands of the other candidates. If either Clinton or Obama do go ahead and vote for the legislation, and certainly if both of them do so, they will create a huge opening for former North Carolina John Edwards, who has staked out the clearest anti-war position of the front runners for the nomination. But this is about more than just Democratic presidential politics: A number of Senate Republicans who are up for reelection next year -- including Maine's Susan Collins, Minnesota's Norm Coleman and Oregon's Gordon Smith -- may well be casting the most important votes of their political careers.
Collins, Coleman and Smith have tried to straddle the war debate. If they vote to give George Bush another blank check, however, they will have removed any doubt regarding how serious they are about ending the war -- as will their colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
John Nichols' new book is The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"
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