By Shailagh Murray and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 15, 2007
After weeks of delay, Democratic leaders yesterday managed to bring to the Senate floor for the first time a binding resolution that would bring U.S. troops home from Iraq. But Republicans remained confident that they could kill the proposal, and the White House threatened a veto, raising constitutional concerns.
Democrats want the new proposal to supersede the 2002 resolution that authorized the Iraq invasion. It would restrict troop movements and set March 31, 2008, as a target date for bringing the troops home.
Republicans had blocked previous efforts on new war resolutions, using parliamentary maneuvers. But they allowed the latest version to inch forward, confident that they could still kill the proposal. A final resolution could come later this week, and Democrats acknowledged that it is unlikely to become law. Still, war opponents urged support for the resolution, declaring that the public no longer wants U.S. troops in Iraq and that last November's elections showed that voters wanted Democrats to end the conflict.
"Congress authorized this war, and it is in our power to bring it to a close," said Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), a leading war opponent and supporter of the resolution. "More importantly, we have not just the power but the responsibility to end a war that is draining vital national security resources in pursuit of a goal that cannot be achieved militarily."
The House Appropriations Committee will begin consideration today of a $125 billion war funding bill that includes deadlines for bringing the troops home. The White House has threatened to veto that proposal, too, and administration officials said they have constitutional concerns with that legislation.
Yesterday's threat from the administration on the Senate's proposal was another sign of how the White House is ratcheting up the pressure on Congress not to adopt language that would restrict the president's flexibility to conduct the war as he sees fit.
The resolution "infringes upon the constitutional authority of the President as Commander in Chief by imposing an artificial timeline to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, regardless of the conditions on the ground or the consequences of defeat," the White House statement said. "The legislation would hobble American commanders in the field and substantially endanger America's strategic objective of a unified federal democratic Iraq that can govern, defend, and sustain itself and be an ally in the war on terror."
The Senate resolution would require a "prompt transition" of the Iraq mission, from the current full-scale engagement to three specific activities: protecting U.S. infrastructure and personnel; training and equipping Iraqi forces; and conducting "targeted counter-terrorism operations." The resolution would require a phased redeployment of troops to begin within 120 days of enactment, with the goal of sending home all U.S. combat forces by next March.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), who is seeking the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, said the 2002 authorization is no longer relevant because it gave Bush the authority to destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and, if necessary, to depose Saddam Hussein -- neither of which remains a matter of concern. "If you want to be literal about it, this mission no longer has the force of law," he said.
Republicans contend that Congress has no authority to dictate war policy, and that Democrats are overreaching, possibly dangerously, by attempting to limit Bush's options. "This is the memo that our enemies have been waiting for," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
"They would not declare war, nor end it, as the Constitution provides, but micromanage it," said Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a candidate for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination and a staunch war defender. "I've heard some argue that Iraq is already a catastrophe, and we need to get our soldiers out of the way of its consequences. To my colleagues who believe this, I say, you have no idea how much worse things could get."
Administration officials said, if adopted, the Senate resolution would essentially make Congress a "co-commander in chief," a competing source of judgments on how to conduct the war. "The Constitution commits the exclusive power to the president as commander in chief to make the decisions necessary to conduct the war," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. "This resolution unconstitutionally intrudes on that authority by attempting to direct strategic and tactical decisions."
The veto threat served as the latest White House warning to Democrats on the perils of adopting language that would restrict the president's flexibility in Iraq, and it underscored how the debate could eventually escalate into a constitutional clash between Bush and Congress. Until yesterday, the White House avoided raising specific legal objections to the Democrats' Iraq proposals out of an apparent desire not to antagonize its legislative opponents.
By raising legal concerns about Congress setting timetables for a withdrawal, experts said, the White House has raised the possibility that it could try to check Congress not by vetoing the Iraq funding bill, should it contain restrictive language, but by declining to enforce what it deems unconstitutional.
The administration has generated controversy in legal circles with its frequent use of signing statements with legislation -- in which the president signs the legislation but indicates that he will not consider himself bound by certain objectionable language. Experts on both the right and the left said they think that this is an option the White House is considering taking if the President is sent an Iraq spending bill containing language that he believes infringes on his powers as commander in chief.
"I think that they are preserving that option," said Scott Lilly, a former top Democratic aide on the House Appropriations Committee who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Lilly has conducted for current House Appropriations aides extensive briefings on constitutional matters pertaining to war spending.