Analysis

Democrats Signal a Wider Battle Lasting the Rest of President's Term

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 17, 2007

After enjoying great deference in the conduct of national security for his first six years in office, President Bush now faces an assertive opposition Congress that has left him on the defensive. The nonbinding resolution passed by the House yesterday on a largely party-line vote seems certain to be the first of a series of actions that will challenge Bush for the remainder of his presidency.

At stake is not just Bush's decision to send an additional 21,500 U.S. troops to Iraq, the plan specifically renounced by the resolution. By extension, the 246 to 182 vote passed judgment on Bush's overall stewardship of the war in Iraq and, more broadly, on his leadership in the world. At a time when the president is confronting Iran over its nuclear enrichment program, the House vote demonstrates that he has far less latitude to take aggressive action than he might have had in the past.

"This is an important moment," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser and is now a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "And it's an important moment not only about what's in the past, or even in the present, but also what might be happening in the future."

The resolution, he said, "tells the president that the country's increasingly tired of the war and the country's reaction to his provoking a new war would be even worse."

Both sides recognized that the House vote, along with a Senate vote scheduled for today, represents the opening salvo in a more protracted struggle. "To me, this is kind of a baby step. It doesn't have teeth," said David J. Rothkopf, author of "Running the World," a book on the making of modern foreign policy. "The real question is going to be whether the Democratic leadership goes further and challenges funding, because that's where Congress historically has been able to show its influence."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her close adviser, Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), are devising a strategy to tie Bush's hands by placing conditions on future funding for the war, such as requiring any units sent to Iraq to meet certain standards for training, equipment and rest between deployments. Because those conditions might be hard to meet, they could slowly constrict Bush's ability to keep up troop levels.

But yesterday's vote signaled peril for the Democratic congressional leadership as well. Despite deep Republican discontent with the course of the war, Democrats were unable to persuade more than 17 members of the president's party to register that dissatisfaction with their votes. If Democratic leaders could not build a broader bipartisan coalition for a symbolic vote, it may prove much harder to attract Republican support for proposals to limit Bush's options in Iraq.

Many Democratic strategists remain allergic to repeating the finale of the Vietnam War, when Congress voted to cut funds for the South Vietnamese government and the nation fell to the North in 1975. For years afterward, Democrats have struggled to shed the image of being soft on defense, which is why they were so eager to bring along more Republicans yesterday.

The White House privately pressed that point with wavering Republicans. Even as Bush resigned himself to certain passage of a resolution with no substantive force and publicly made little effort to oppose it, aides such as national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley lobbied GOP lawmakers to stick with the president to avoid emboldening Democrats down the line. "If Republicans go along with this," an administration official said, "it sends a message to Murtha about what he might be able to do with the supplemental" war-spending measure.

Administration allies warned about the precedent beyond Bush as well. "If Congress proceeds to throttle the president's strategy, then it will seriously undercut the ability of future presidents to do what they need to do to protect the nation in a time of war," said James Phillips, a foreign policy scholar at the Heritage Foundation. "It's a mistake to think you can effectively run a war by committee."

The president and Congress have wrestled over national security since the founding of the nation. The first congressional investigation back in 1792 when George Washington was president looked into a bloody military defeat inflicted by Native Americans. Congress challenged the White House during the Mexican-American War and the Civil War, rejected the Treaty of Versailles negotiated by Woodrow Wilson after World War I, and tried to keep Franklin D. Roosevelt from aiding allies facing threats from Nazi Germany.

The clash between branches came to a head during the Vietnam War, when Congress rescinded the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that Lyndon B. Johnson had used to justify an escalation. A measure to cut off money for the war was rejected in 1970 but increased pressure on Richard M. Nixon to turn the fighting over to the South Vietnamese. As Nixon withdrew U.S. forces, Congress in 1973 cut off funding for "offensive" operations, in effect ratifying what by then was the president's stated course. A 1974 vote cut aid to South Vietnamese forces by 50 percent after U.S. forces were already gone, leading to the fall of Saigon.

Tension between the executive and legislative branches over national security has percolated since then. Congress restricted Ronald Reagan from funding the contra rebels in Nicaragua, and the Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty submitted by Bill Clinton. But the tension had not reached the Vietnam War level until yesterday.

"There's always been a lot of dissent in wartime," said Senate historian Donald A. Ritchie. Sometimes, as in Vietnam, it takes a while to build, he added: "There's a certain point when everybody marches together. They were very much united with Johnson in '65 and '66. But when the war turned bad, that's when they broke away. The same was true in the Civil War, and the same was true in any protracted war when things didn't go well."


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