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Time to Stand Up as Congress Stands Down with War Funding Bill

How is it that, after winning the White House and strong Congressional majorities in 2008, Democrats are still playing defense when it comes to national security? How is it that those same politicians who were handed a mandate for change in November are, just a few months later, losing the fight to close the Guantanamo Bay prison? How is it that someone as widely discredited as Dick Cheney is setting the terms of debate on national security?

For years, Congressional Democrats urged patience from their progressive, anti-war base. Without the White House and strong Congressional majorities, they argued, there was only so much that could realistically be done to change our nation's disastrous course.

So in 2008 progressives once again pulled out every stop to organize and mobilize for the elections. Candidates, starting with President Obama, embraced our vision and our issues-from ending torture and shutting down Guantanamo Bay prison, to ending the scandal that, in America, "health care system" has become an oxymoron, to the demand that Americans return to work rebuilding our economy on a foundation of clean air and energy independence.

But while Democrats won big in November, they are losing in May.

Exhibit A: One of the most discredited and least popular political figures in America, former Vice President Dick Cheney, has Democrats on the defensive about closing the Guantanamo Bay prison and ending a disgrace that has blighted our nation's moral standing in the world. Democrats responded by quietly stripping the supplemental appropriations bill of the funds President Obama needed to close Guantanamo while ordering the administration to come up with a plan for handling the detainees.

Republicans seized their advantage and gleefully pounded away on the floor of the House and their various media perches and echo chambers that Democrats were hell bent on shipping international terrorists from Guantanamo Bay right into American neighborhoods. Why, if Democrats have their way, you might very well look out your window next week and see Abu Zubaydah mowing the lawn next door!

Meanwhile, Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern sought to include in the bill a call for the administration to provide Congress with an exit strategy from what many of us fear could become the next American quagmire -- the war in Afghanistan. That modest proposal never got to see the light of day. Congressman McGovern instead had to introduce it yesterday as a free standing bill with 76 original co-sponsors and will fight to have it included in the 2010 Defense Authorization bill.


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House Democrats need to hear from us. If the war spending bill passed yesterday is the best they think they can do with control of the White House and strong majorities in both chambers of Congress, we have a lot of work to do.

And there is no time to lose-Congressional action on the 2010 Defense Authorization bill is only weeks away.

The Defense Authorization bill will start making its way through the House Armed Services Committee soon and will likely be on the floor of the House as early as next month. In addition to providing an opportunity for Congress to endorse Congressman McGovern's Afghanistan exit language, it will also be Congress's first crack at President's plan to cut obsolete weapons systems. But even here, Democrats are on the defensive: Despite proposing cuts in the most obscene examples of Pentagon waste, the 2010 Democratic defense budget is still tens of billions of dollars larger than the largest Defense budget ever proposed by President George W. Bush!

And, even this budget is under fire! The weapons lobby is working overtime to cut deals and keep those dollars flowing. Meanwhile, many of the same Members of Congress - including Democrats -- who will attempt to revive this obscene weapons spending are wringing their hands and telling us that clean air and health care for all Americans is simply beyond what Congress can afford.

Is this the change we can believe in?

The news yesterday wasn't all bad, though. Congressman Sam Farr was able to get language included into the war funding bill that endorses the president's time-line to remove all troops from Iraq and requires the Pentagon to provide ongoing reports to Congress on its progress in implementing that time-line. This was necessary to push back against pressure from some in the military, including the U.S. commanding general in Iraq, Ray Odierno, to slow the pace of a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq in light of the recent uptick in violence. The fact is, there will likely be an uptick in violence whenever the U.S. pulls out of Iraq, particularly if the Maliki government continues to refuse compromise with his Sunni rivals. The issue is not whether Iraq will be peaceful and stable. It won't, at least for the foreseeable future. The issue is whether Iraqis will have sovereignty over their own country.

Yet what happened on the floor of the House of Representatives yesterday should serve as a wake-up call to all progressives. Democrats in Washington can do much better; it's our job to make sure that they do.

Tom Andrews

Tom Andrews

Tom Andrews, a former Member of Congress from the first Congressional District of Maine, is senior adviser to the human rights group, Fortify Rights. Andrews is the former President of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Tom also served as National Director of Win Without War, a coalition of forty-two national membership organizations including the National Council of Churches, the NAACP, the National Organization of Women, the Sierra Club, and MoveOn.  He is also a co-founder of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

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