Despite the results of last November's elections, which gave them the authority to check and balance George Bush, and despite polls that show roughly two-thirds of Americans want them to do so, Democrats are not quite ready to say "no" to the president's demand for more money to wage the war that he pleases in Iraq.
On the critical Senate vote on whether to hand Bush a blank check he sought, 37 Democrats and so-called "Democrat" Joe Lieberman of Connecticut voted with the White House. They joined with 42 Republicans -- including Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, who talks a good anti-war line but votes with the administration when push comes to shove -- to pass the $120 billion supplemental spending bill.
Against the 80 votes for perpetual war were 14 "no" votes. Three came from conservative Republicans -- North Carolina's Richard Burr, Oklahoma's Tom Coburn and Wyoming's Mike Enzi -- who objected to the pricey domestic initiatives and policies that were attached to the measure in an attempt to render it more palatable.
That left nine Democrats and one independent who caucuses with the Democrats, Vermont's Bernie Sanders, objecting to giving Bush the go ahead to keep his war going through 2008, and perhaps to January 20, 2009.
The Democrats who voted "no" were: California's Barbara Boxer, New York's Hillary Clinton, Connecticut's Chris Dodd, Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, Massachusetts' Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, Vermont's Patrick Leahy, Illinois' Barack Obama, Rhode Island's Sheldon Whitehouse and Oregon's Ron Wyden.
Clinton, Obama and Dodd are all 2008 presidential candidates. Dodd gets the highest marks, as he was out front in his opposition to the spending bill, while Obama and Clinton took the right stand only after Dodd and another Democratic contender, John Edwards, turned up the heat on the frontrunners -- as did activist groups such as Progressive Democrats for America and MoveOn.org.
The Senate vote was the most closely watched, because of its potential impact on the Democratic presidential contest and because it provided a clearer measure of Democratic willingness to stand up to Bush.
In the House, where the spending bill was split into two parts, the calculus was more complex. But Democrats still showed their divisions when it comes to challenging Bush's warmaking.
On the question of whether to give Bush all the money and more that he sought to keep his war going, the vote was 280-142 in favor. Republicans cast the majority of "yes" votes, 194. But 86 Democrats -- including the House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, and a number of key committee and sub-committee chairs -- joined the "yes" camp.
Voting "no" were 14O Democrats -- including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and Appropriations Committee chair David Obey, D-Wisconsin, the man who negotiated the bill -- and two Republicans with steady records of anti-war voting, Tennessee's John Duncan and Texan Ron Paul. Obey called the process that ended in the president getting the money he wanted with no timeline for withdrawal and inconsequential "benchmarks" a "step forwrad" to the fight to end the war.
But it didn't feel like that to Feingold, the first Democrat to call for a withdrawal timeline and an outspoken advocate for using Congress' "power of the purse" to bring the troops home. Calling Congress' compromise with the White House "a failure," Feingold said, "This is the first real turn in the wrong direction in several months. I regret it, and I think it's a big mistake."
So what are we left with? Not much to be encouraged by. Pelosi says this is not the end of the fight, that Democrats will press the president when additional Iraq spending demands come to the Congress in the summer and fall. The speaker's sincere; she does hold out hope for a turn of events that will make it possible to block Bush. And there is no reason not to wish her well. But the fact is that Democrats in the House and Senate remain divided to the point of dysfunction. And the anti-war camp is still far short of the numbers it needs to get Congress to check and balance Bush, not just in the Congress as a whole but in the Democratic caucuses of the House and Senate.
While it seemed in recent weeks that Congress might actually be prepared to stand up to the president, Feingold said Thursday "we are moving backward."
"Instead of forcing the President to safely redeploy our troops, instead of coming up with a strategy providing assistance to a post-redeployment Iraq, and instead of a renewed focus on the global fight against al-Qaeda," the frustrated senator said, "we are faced with a spending bill that kicks the can down the road and buys the Administration time."
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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