Technically, the Democrats can end America’s presence in Iraq.
They control Congress, they have the power over spending, and they can cut off the money that fuels the war.
Despite polls showing Americans overwhelmingly opposed to the war, despite the mounting American military casualties, and despite the obvious ineffectiveness of the entire enterprise until now to bring stability to Iraq, Democrats at the very heart of the party’s anti-war wing still think the political costs would simply be too high.
“The President will say we’re in business with Osama bin Laden,” said Representative Charles Rangel, who has been one of the war’s most outspoken opponents in Congress. “Anytime, politically, you have to explain what you are saying, you have a problem. And so if I am there saying, ‘Cut the funds for Iraq and the war in Iraq,’ then someone is going to say, ‘You are taking away rifles.’”
A decorated Korean War veteran, Mr. Rangel seemed acutely sensitive to the potential consequences of voting against money for the troops: “If my black ass was in Korea during the war and people got fed up with it,” he said, “and they cut off the money so I couldn’t get some snowshoes or underwear—well, goddamn, you are cutting the wrong people.”
So as President George W. Bush practiced his speech, scheduled to be delivered on Wednesday, calling for a sharp increase in troop levels, the jubilant gavel-waving of Democrats threatening to slash Iraq spending amounted to an ostentatious display of … their ability to hold hearings.
“We could be having a hearing every day,” said Representative James P. Moran of Virginia, a member of the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for actually doling out the funds for the war. “We are going to be very busy.”
By conducting aggressive oversight hearings, Democrats do hope to at least pressure Mr. Bush to withdraw from Iraq by shining a spotlight on the billions of dollars that the administration has spent on a war that seems to be worsening by the day.
“You don’t have to cut off funds,” added Mr. Rangel. “Having public hearings causes the country to ask, ‘What are the funds for? And what makes you think it is going to be effective?’”
In recent days, some Democratic opponents of the war have been willing to go beyond that, growing more insistent—and much more conspicuous—about the need to take more concrete action.
Senator Ted Kennedy has introduced legislation to ban funding for troop increases over the Jan. 1 level, and he told the National Press Club on Tuesday that “Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam.”
“If we do not learn from the mistakes of the past,” he said, “we are condemned to repeat them. We must act, and act now, before the President sends more troops to Iraq, or else it will be too late.”
On Jan. 17, the powerful House Appropriations Committee—a particular hotbed of opposition to the war headed by Representative Jack Murtha, a former Marine—will begin holding hearings looking into the fraud allegedly committed by private companies with government contracts in Iraq.
Whispering in Mr. Murtha’s ear on the Appropriations Committee will be Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Congressman and declared 2008 Presidential primary candidate, who has advocated a freeze on all funding for the war to force a full withdrawal by March.
“John and I are in continual discussion on these things,” said Mr. Kucinich. “He has shown flexibility in the past, and it’s been important, so I’m going to be speaking with him to show him how I think we can bring the troops home.
“Congress,” he added “must notify the administration that it is not going to appropriate any more funds to continue the war.”
There are several options available to the war’s opponents in the House.
The most extreme option would be to refuse to pass the defense spending in the budget, or the so-called emergency requests by which the war has mostly been funded.
They could pass budget or individual defense-appropriations bills that restrict funding to different aspects of the war. (According to Columbia University professor Gregory Wawro, the President could then veto those bills, or he could assert executive power and ignore them. If he does the latter, Congress would then have the right to sue the executive.)
And they could attempt to assert control over the war by requiring the administration to meet predetermined milestones for progress in Iraq before allocating more funds.
“There is going to be a lot of limitations on the funding,” said Mr. Moran. “We will put it right in the language of the bill—language like, ‘None of the funds in this bill can be used for the following purposes.’ It will be done.”
At the very least, the opportunity to cross-examine the administration about the cost of the war is tempting enough to make the subcommittee one of the marquee groups in the House.
Representative Marcy Kaptur of Ohio turned down the chairmanship of the committee’s agriculture subcommittee for a seat on the defense subcommittee.
“We need to seriously address the situation in Iraq,” said Ms. Kaptur in a statement. “But throwing more money at the problem is not a solution.”
The White House’s Office of Management and Budget originally estimated that the war in Iraq would cost the United States $50 billion. But little in Iraq has gone as its architects planned.
According to a September report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the country has spent about $350 billion for the war in Iraq. When the already approved defense budget for 2007 is taken into account, Congress will have approved something in the neighborhood of half a trillion dollars.
The vast majority of that funding has come through emergency supplemental bills, which allow the White House to bypass the armed-services committees of the House and Senate and not count that spending in the overall budget.
Democrats across the board have said that the emergency requests hide the cost of the war, because the administration breaks up the overall annual spending into separate infusions of cash. (Even Senator John McCain, who has advocated an increase in the number of troops in Iraq, added an amendment to the 2007 defense-authorization law requiring that the war cost be submitted to Congress in the regular budget and not as emergency requests.)
Yet the Democrats who have advocated specific plans to restrict Iraq funding—emergency or otherwise—are very much the exception.
Steve Israel of New York, who left the House Armed Services Committee to join the Appropriations Committee this month, said he’d be “willing to cut spending in nonessential areas, like these giveaways to some contract agencies,” but made it clear that he would not consider any reductions connected to force protection.
Other Democrats in Washington—especially those who happen to be considering a Presidential run in 2008—are wary of going beyond that position. Senator John Kerry’s blunder in 2004 of explaining his vote against one such emergency supplemental—“I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it”—is seared in the collective Democratic consciousness.
Indeed, the Republicans seem to be setting the stage for a repeat. At a White House press conference on Tuesday about the possibility of the Democrats withholding funding, administration spokesman Tony Snow said, “Well, look, Democrats are going to have to make a choice here, and they’re going to have to decide where they stand in terms of two issues: No. 1, do you want Iraq to succeed, and, if so, what does that mean? And, No. 2, do you believe in supporting the troops, as you say, and how do you express that support?”
“People ought to be understandably cautious after the Kerry disaster, because what Kerry tried to do was, through the appropriations process, basically argue that the spending should stop,” said Elaine Kamarck, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a former official in the administration of President Bill Clinton. “Anything that can be interpreted as reducing support to troops in the field becomes a political landmine.”
On Sunday, Senator Joe Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a candidate for President, appearing on Meet the Press, said that after authorizing the use of force, any Congressional attempt to put a cap on troop strength by cutting funds was unconstitutional.
“As a practical matter, there’s no way to say, ‘Mr. President, stop,’” said Mr. Biden.
Joe Crowley, a New York Congressman who supports a plan advocated by Mr. Biden to oversee the break-up of Iraq into three loosely confederated regions, also steered clear of cutting funds.
“I would be reluctant to cut, but I also want to hear what the emergency is, detail where this money is actually going and what it is being used for,” said Mr. Crowley. “I don’t think it’s the intention of the Congress and the Democratic leadership to send in any way a message that we are going to undermine our troops, not supply them or cut off their funding to hasten [a withdrawal]. We want to do this in an educated way, and the only way we can do that is by holding hearings.”
“It’s certainly possible—I’m not sure whether we want to do that or not,” said Mr. Moran about the option of slashing funds for the war. “There are some people who believe we ought to give this commander in chief all the rope that he wants.”