By Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 16, 2007
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) yesterday linked her support for President Bush's war-funding request to strict standards of resting, training and equipping combat forces, a move that could curtail troop deployments and alter the course of U.S. involvement in Iraq.
The pledge came as Congress appears ready to assert its authority in matters of war and diplomacy, down to decisions that the White House believes to be the domain solely of the president as commander in chief: the deployment and training of military forces.
The House is to vote today on a nonbinding resolution disapproving of Bush's decision to deploy more than 21,000 additional troops to Iraq. Also, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) announced a rare Saturday vote to begin debate on the House resolution.
Congressional Democrats signaled a willingness to directly challenge and curtail Bush's warmaking powers, a move that will almost certainly spark a legal or constitutional confrontation. Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a Pelosi ally, is rewriting the president's spending request to limit Bush's options in prosecuting the war, and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he will seek to repeal the 2002 congressional authorization for Bush to wage war in Iraq and substitute legislation that would narrow the mission of troops there and begin to bring some home.
"If we are going to support our troops, we should respect what is considered reasonable for them: their training, their equipment and their time at home," Pelosi said in an interview with a small group of reporters. "What we're trying to say to the president is, you can't send people in who are not trained for urban warfare . . . who are not prepared to contend with an insurgency."
The Democrats' move is likely to test the party's unity in the coming weeks, as anxious moderates clash with liberals pushing for an even more dramatic confrontation.
Pelosi was careful to say no final decisions have been made on binding legislation. But she backed key provisions already floated by Murtha, including requirements that troops be given at least a year's rest between combat deployments, special training in urban warfare and counterinsurgency, and safety equipment that the military has struggled to provide.
The speaker backed Murtha's plan to eliminate funding for the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, where a prisoner-abuse scandal badly tarnished the U.S. image in the region and the world. She also strongly endorsed binding legislation requiring Bush to seek congressional authorization before any military strike on Iran.
"Congress should assert itself . . . and make it very clear that there is no previous authority for the president, any president, any president to go into Iran," she said.
Biden, a declared candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, said his legislative proposal would authorize the limited use of force in Iraq only as part of a withdrawal plan.
"Congress should make clear what the mission of our troops is: to responsibly draw down, while continuing to combat terrorists, train Iraqis and respond to emergencies," he said. "We should make equally clear what their mission is not: to stay in Iraq indefinitely and get mired in a savage civil war."
Calling Bush's proposed troop increase "a tragic mistake," Biden said: "Opposing the surge is only the first step. We need a radical change in course in Iraq. If the president won't act, Congress will have to attempt to do so. But Congress must act responsibly. We must resist the temptation to push for changes that sound good but may very well produce bad results."
The issue of Iraq roiled both sides of the Capitol yesterday. The House concluded three days of debate and prepared to vote this afternoon on a nonbinding resolution opposing the deployment of additional troops to Iraq, while affirming Congress's support for "the members of the United States Armed Forces who are serving or who have served bravely and honorably in Iraq."
Senate Republican leaders said they would urge their members to oppose the Saturday vote, to protest Reid's refusal to allow a vote on a pro-administration resolution asserting that war funding would continue. Democratic leaders want to call the bluff of a group of Republican senators who oppose the deployment of additional troops but who voted with their party to block the earlier Democratic-led resolution from coming to the floor.
Both leaderships have refused to budge, not wanting to relent on what they agree is likely to become the year's running narrative. "I don't want this vote to occur. I think the timing is wrong, I think the process is wrong, and I think the substance is wrong," said Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
When the House floated its text, Senate Democratic leaders quickly latched on to it, believing Republicans would find it harder to block because of its relatively brief, straightforward language and strong support of U.S. troops.
"On the one hand they have their president, and on the other hand they have their constituencies," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "They're diametrically opposed to one another. And now they can't duck it anymore."
But as those debates continued, senior Democrats were clearly looking to their next step in confronting Bush on the Iraq war.
Murtha, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, outlined his plan for restricting the administration's use of war funds in an Internet interview released yesterday. Under that legislation, troops would be required to have one year's rest between deployments, combat tours could no longer be extended, and the Pentagon would have to halt its "stop-loss" program, which prohibits some officers from leaving the military when their tour of duty is complete.
The idea is to neutralize political charges that the Democrats plan to starve the war of funding. The party would still slow the war effort by other means, Murtha said in an interview aired on the new Web site MoveCongress.org.
"What we are saying will be very hard to find fault with," he said. "We're supporting the troops. We're protecting the troops. On the other hand, we're going to stop this surge."
Democrats were taking their case to the left flank of their party, imploring antiwar activists to allow them to slowly shift war policy through troop training requirements rather than by suddenly withholding war funds, as many activists have demanded.
In a video delivered to 1,200 "movie parties" that the liberal group MoveOn.org held last night, Murtha promised: "This country needs a dramatic change of course in Iraq, and it is the responsibility of this Congress to consummate that change."
Republicans are relishing the battle. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) labeled the emerging Democratic proposal "a plan to cut off funding for troops in harm's way by making sure the reinforcements they need to complete their mission in Iraq never arrive."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.