Analysis

Debate Over Iraq Pullout Aside, Bush Needs a War Spending Bill

President Bush doesn't like the current bill, but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have to be paid for.
President Bush doesn't like the current bill, but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have to be paid for. (By Brendan Smialowski -- Bloomberg News)
By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 22, 2007

With the House facing a critical vote on Iraq this week, the White House finds itself embroiled in a fierce legislative battle to keep money flowing to the war effort, with the outcome dependent on its ability to show real progress in Baghdad and keep Republicans in line behind its veto strategy.

Prodded by liberal activists and emboldened by polls showing the war becoming more unpopular, Democratic leaders have gone further than many imagined possible only a few months ago. They have united a cross section of the party behind a plan for a phased withdrawal of U.S. combat troops to be completed by August 2008, part of a war spending package to be considered today on the House floor.

The immediate danger for the White House is not that the Democrats have the power to impose a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Even if the Democrats muster the 218 votes necessary to pass the bill, the plan would have an uncertain future in the Senate and would face a veto in the unlikely event it arrives at President Bush's desk in its current form.

The bigger problem for the administration is making sure it receives a spending bill from Congress that Bush feels he can sign -- and to get it in a timely manner. The Pentagon is desperate for the additional funds in the bill -- about $100 billion for the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and Democrats are hoping that fact may provide them the leverage to begin forcing changes in administration policy.

"Ultimately, we need to get the president the money," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee. "It's going to be a problem very shortly."

Stephen S. McMillin, the White House's deputy budget director, granted as much when he said that, by April, it will become "more and more challenging for the military to cash-flow from other accounts in order to sustain the troops in the field." He said Congress should put an end "to the charade and promptly send us a bill that funds the troops."

For all the expected theater on the House floor, the real action will come later behind closed doors, when House and Senate negotiators hammer out a compromise Iraq spending plan. With the military anxious for the funds, some Democrats think they can force the White House to join those negotiations in good faith, and to accept a date for the removal of troops -- a position Bush aides say the president will never accept.

In some respects, the coming struggle over war spending recalls the budget battles between the GOP-led Congress and the Clinton White House during the mid-1990s. In that case, House Republicans led by Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) badly overplayed their hand and were blamed politically for a government shutdown they thought would force President Bill Clinton to make the budget cuts he opposed.

Private conversations with White House officials suggest this lesson is not far from their thinking. Officials appear convinced that Democrats would not dare risk being blamed for not "supporting the troops" by refusing to send Bush a bill without restrictions on how troops are to be deployed. Moderate Democrats, already skittish about the party leadership's plan, "would go nuts," one White House official predicted.

White House officials believe that Democrats are incorrectly interpreting the results of the 2006 elections as a mandate to begin pulling troops out of Iraq and are being dragged over a cliff by their liberal base. In a recent interview, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove acknowledged the dissatisfaction with the war but said that the public is not confident about withdrawing, regardless of the conditions on the ground.

"People instinctively understand if we leave before the job is done it's a defeat for the United States, and they don't want America to lose," Rove said.

Democrats are equally confident, and even a narrow vote in support of their plan would signal how rapidly the public has turned against the war.

"We were on the right side of the national referendum last November," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense. "We have a mandate to bring our troops home as soon and as safely as possible. If we can't accomplish that, we will have let down the people who worked so hard for a democratic majority." He predicted that Bush will eventually be forced to negotiate with Democrats.

But even if the White House survives the battle over this supplemental spending bill, it will immediately face further battles over the mammoth defense bill for next year and one more supplemental measure for Iraq and Afghanistan -- together totaling more than $620 billion.

"I don't think anybody knows the endgame right now," said Jim Dyer, a White House aide in the George H.W. Bush administration and a former GOP staff director of the House Appropriations Committee. "Democrats are going to play this card again and again until they get a greater involvement in the decision process -- something the White House has been unwilling to do at this point."

The big question will be how long Republicans can prevent Democrats from acquiring a veto-proof majority. Progress on the ground in Iraq would be crucial in that matter, members of both parties agree.

"This war will come to an end only when respected senior Republicans make the trip down Pennsylvania Avenue to inform the president that he can no longer count on their support," said centrist Democratic strategist William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "That's still at least several months away."

Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.


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