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After Bush Vetoes The Iraq Bill... What?

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While the legislative news on Iraq from the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives is currently good, don't be deceived into thinking that the end of the Iraq war is just around the corner. Because, by momentarily reining in the Senate Republicans, Bush is inviting the Democrats' bill to come to his desk quickly for only one reason: so he can veto it just as quickly. So Democrats need to be prepared for what comes next.

A quick review of where things stand: Nancy Pelosi proved (once again) her political acumen by getting the votes in the House to pass a supplemental funding bill that would fund the military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan through the end of the fiscal year -- to the tune of $100 billion (with about $25 billion in extra pork, to gain votes) -- but with some serious strings on how the money could be spent. The Senate will soon pass their version of roughly the same bill (theirs has slightly different strings attached). Because the two versions are different, there will be a conference committee where the language will be tweaked until a single version of the bill emerges, presumably acceptable to both houses. This bill will then have to pass both those houses all over again, after which it will finally go to Bush's desk.

Where (make no mistake) it will be vetoed. Bush actually appears eager to do so. What happens after this point is where things get interesting, which is why Democrats better have a solid plan of action ready to go.

Bush's veto should be seen as a certainty, because of what just happened in the Senate. Since the Democrats took over, every Senate bill on Iraq has had to face a cloture vote (where the GOP threatens to filibuster, and 60 votes are needed to continue action on the bill). The Democrats have lost all of these votes, it should be noted, by various margins. But suddenly, Senate Republicans have politely decided to not use this parliamentary tool, meaning the Iraq war bill will require only a simple majority vote.

Why the tactical change? Republicans could have elected to shut this bill down the way they've been successfully shutting down all the others. So why allow this one to go through? The only logical answer is that Bush actually wants this veto, and told them to stand aside and let it through. GOP Senators were happy to do so, because it helps spread the well-deserved "obstructionist" blame around a bit.

While some in the media are holding out hope that the White House will sit down like adults and work with the congressional conference committee to agree on language that Bush will actually sign, it must be said that this is deluded and wishful thinking. Because Bush wants to veto this bill -- for several political reasons.

Since it would be only Bush's second veto ever (and since Iraq is a big subject anyway), it is guaranteed to be front-page news everywhere -- which conveniently pushes Alberto Gonzales' troubles off the radar screen. A veto would allow Bush to "stand up for his principles," something he just loves to do. Bush really does think history's going to vindicate him on Iraq, so he sees this as another chapter of "doing the right thing" in his memoirs. Most importantly, this sends the ball back to the Democrats' court -- Bush will veto the bill and demand a "clean" bill with just the $100 billion he needs for the war, with no strings attached. The heavy media spin from the White House will be: "Democrats must act NOW to pass a clean bill." Since the Pentagon's Iraq money is about to run out, this will put things on a very tight timetable before Republicans will start the chorus of: "Democrats are not funding the troops in the field."

I'm sure Karl Rove has already thought of all this, and is currently telling the president that he can win the spin game in the media over the issue, and hence make Democrats look bad. Remember, when Newt Gingrich shut down the government, popular opinion went against Congress and for Clinton. Rove is undoubtedly counting on the same thing happening.

So Democrats better have a good fallback plan, or they better put one together real soon. Here are the options they should consider to counter Bush's veto threat:

 

(1) Be nice, compromise in conference committee

When the conference committee meets, politely ask the White House where the "line in the sand" truly is -- in other words, which portions of the bill would have to be removed in order for Bush to sign it. This is doomed to failure, and the only reason to attempt it is to provide political cover for Democrats -- "See, we tried to compromise, but Bush wouldn't deal." But don't expect it to work, since Bush will stand firm and demand a "clean" bill. Remember, he wants to veto this bill. This is only an acceptable option in order to pay the idea some political lip service, then move on.

(2) Get as strongly-worded an anti-war bill out of committee as possible

Since Bush is going to veto it anyway, resist changing the bill drastically in committee. The pork can get cut if it doesn't lose Democratic votes in the House; and the timeline will probably turn into a "goal" rather than a hard and fast date, in order to get it through the Senate. The timeline for withdrawal may be set at one year (the Senate version) or 18 months (the House version). Murtha's "troop readiness" section should stay in, though. Whatever the final language, it has to pass both houses, so it can't be tinkered with too much without raising the danger of losing crucial votes. The House only passed their bill by a 218-212 margin, remember, and the Senate will also have a thin majority when they vote.

(3) The veto override vote

After Bush vetoes the bill, Democrats may hold "show" votes to override the veto. These will fail. Democrats need a two-thirds majority, and they aren't even close in either house. Since everyone already knows this, even holding this vote is optional.

(4) The hardest line possible -- tell Bush that's the only bill Congress will pass

Now comes the hard part -- what to do after the veto. There are only three options. The first is to attempt to force Bush to "blink" by telling him: "This is the only bill you're going to get, so if you don't sign it, then you don't get the $100 billion you want. Like it or lump it." This will be the most popular option amongst the left edge of the blogosphere, but it is the worst thing the Democrats could do. Just like the government shutdown in 1994 (the Gingrich - Clinton showdown), ordinary people aren't going to support Democrats if they attempt this. Yes, a large majority of people want the war to end; and yes, they want Congress to do something about it; but relatively few of them want to end the war by cutting off all funding by next month. This would endanger the troops as they leave -- because they won't have enough money and time to do so safely. And you can bet your bottom dollar that the right wing media apparatus will be pointing that out ad nauseum. Politically, this would be suicidal for the Democrats to attempt; which Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are smart enough to understand and avoid. Using it as a "well, we could do this" talking point (or threat) in interviews is about as far as Pelosi and Reid will go down this path.

(5) Pass a second (weaker) bill, but still not Bush's "clean" bill

This will be seen by the "get our troops out tomorrow" faction as wimping out. But at this point, it really should be seen as the best attainable option. If there weren't a deadline (the money running out), congressional Democrats would have the luxury of passing a whole slew of bills, taking one piece out at a time from their original bill, until Bush broke down and signed one of them. But they don't have the time to do that. The question is: what could they pass that Bush would sign, once he has already started playing the veto game? The timetables for withdrawal will likely disappear altogether, or they will be incredibly watered down: "We think it'd be a great idea if U.S. troops were out of Iraq by XX/XX/XX date," with no force behind it whatsoever. Bush may not even accept that -- he's already tossed his marker down on the issue of a timetable, so he may not back down on this one issue. The goals or milestones for the Maliki government may stay in, but again, the timetable aspect of them will probably get jettisoned, making the language vague and weak. The pork may all get chopped out of the bill here, too. But the Democrats should hold firm on Murtha's "troop readiness" language. "How can the President threaten to veto a bill that so strongly supports the troops?" is all Democrats need to say in the media to win this battle. "We even added a loophole, so Bush can send troops that are not fully trained, fully supplied, and fully rested if he personally signs off on them, so the President's hands are in no way tied by this." Whatever comes out of committee at this stage is going to disappoint many Democrats outside the Beltway, but given the deadline of the money running out and the fact that Republicans are gaining some media traction with "the surge may already be working, let's give it a few months and see," this is the best that can be realistically hoped for at this point.

(6) Back down and pass a "clean" bill

In other words, the Democrats "blink." If Bush sells his brand of spin successfully after vetoing the original bill, and the public overwhelmingly says that a clean bill is the best thing right now, then congressional Democrats may be forced into passing exactly what Bush wants -- a "clean" $100 billion appropriation with no strings attached. This would be a disaster for the Democrats, a complete rollover. They should resist the urge to give the store away and fight for some sort of compromise with the White House. Democrats may not get backed into this corner, though, however much Bush tries to push them in it. The only way Bush can successfully pull this off is if the public agrees with him. Seeing as how his poll numbers have been in the low 30s for months, this is not likely to happen. As long as the Democrats can frame the issue well, and fight back the slings and arrows of the right-wing media spin machine, the public will probably agree with their position. Two-thirds of the public wants out of Iraq in one way or another, so the public's already staked out their basic position.

 

Obviously, option (2) followed by option (5) is the best that can be realistically hoped for at this point. Options (4) and (6) are both (in different ways) losers for the Democrats, and winners for the Republicans. Democrats have been doing a good job of keeping public opinion on their side, but most Americans don't want an immediate pullout, they want a responsible pullout -- one that is as safe as possible, one that is planned out, and one that funds the pullout as it happens. But giving in completely and passing a "clean" bill is going to enrage the Democratic base, so it should be avoided as well if at all possible.

As I said previously, back in January: the earliest the Democrats will be able to enact a troop withdrawal (even over Bush's veto, if need be) is going to be this summer, or perhaps early fall. By that time, the "surge" will either have worked, not worked, or not made a lot of difference. In each of these situations (and for different rationales), both parties in Congress are going to want to see some American troops coming home -- in large numbers -- to clear the decks for next year's election. The real numbers needed in Congress are: 290 in the House, and 67 in the Senate. That's what it takes to override a veto, and until enough Republicans jump the aisle in fear of not being re-elected, the war is, sadly, going to keep rolling along.

While this is a grim assessment, I do not mean to demoralize the anti-war crowd. I say to them: "Keep the pressure up any way you can" -- since such pressure is a vital part of convincing GOP congressfolk that the time is now to jump that aisle. Perhaps Howard Dean over at the DNC, or MoveOn.org could help by running some ads in weak Republican districts: "Senator So-and-so doesn't want to bring our troops home from Iraq. Vote Democratic!" The best idea I heard all week was on Huffington Post, from Paul Abrams, who wrote a brilliant article on how congressional Democrats could use the issue against Republicans by forcing them to vote on an "open-ended war."

It's a sad fact, but it must be faced soberly: when you actually count the votes, it's obvious that just because Democrats have slim majorities in both houses doesn't automatically mean they have the power to stop the war. They are going to have to convince a bunch of Republicans to start reliably voting with Democrats against the war... and the only way to do so is to hold their feet to the fire. Prove the bumpersticker correct:

"When the people lead, the leaders will follow."

 

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