THE BLOG
01/31/2007 03:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How Congress Will Stop the War in Iraq

This isn't going to make me any friends on the left, but it must be said.

It takes a lot of time for Congress to end a war, even an unpopular one.

Some may see this as a radically inflammatory statement, but it really isn't. It's grounded in a realistic view of the way Washington works. Getting out of Iraq is just not going to happen overnight, especially with the Senate balanced on a 49-2-49 knife edge. This is political reality, and to deny it is foolish.

While there are strident voices on the left crying for immediate troop withdrawal, they need to realize that this is going to be a long, hard slog. I say this not to dampen their enthusiasm, or in any attempt to convince people to "tone it down." Far from it. More power to the vocal anti-war folks! Their voices are a key ingredient in how the war will end. I merely counsel patience and stamina, because it's going to take a while to build consensus in Washington.

It should also be noted up front that the end result is going to make nobody happy. This is the nature of compromise. The left will be disappointed because the troop withdrawal won't start for many months, and will take further months to complete. The right will be enraged that we're "losing" the war, and will never face up to the reality that the war has already been lost. For them to admit this would cause them to totally and completely change their world-view, and that's not going to happen.

One of the big reasons it's going to take time for Congress to end the war is the way Congress works. It's a slow process, by design. Remember the lyrics from "I'm Just a Bill" by Schoolhouse Rock? There are eight hurdles that have to get passed for any bill to become law. It has to pass committee votes and full floor votes in both houses of Congress. Then, if different versions pass in each house (as almost always happens), it has to go to a conference committee made up of members of both houses. The final version has to pass another floor vote in each house. Then, of course, it has to be signed (or vetoed) by the President.

It's a tough row to hoe for any bill. And that's the simplified version, without going into the vagaries of the filibuster and cloture in the Senate, or "amendments" to the bills that are attempted by the opposition in order to kill it.

For the realists out there, I'd like to outline how I think Congress will end the war. There will be four stages to this exit strategy. The first of these has already begun, with dueling concurrent resolutions to condemn Bush's escalation of troops, which are already making their way through the Senate. The second stage will come when the Pentagon runs out of this year's money for Iraq. The third stage will come when next year's budget for the war gets passed. The fourth stage is when the soldiers finally come home.

 

Concurrent Resolutions

A concurrent resolution (most often mistakenly referred to as a "joint resolution") is not, as some have suggested, meaningless. True, it would have no power legally, but politically it would be an enormous black eye for President Bush. No president wants such an ugly stain on their record. Especially not one contemplating his legacy.

Concurrent resolutions have one thing going for them, though. Because they aren't actually laws, they don't require a presidential signature.

Biden's proposal -- Strongly condemn Bush and the escalation

First out of the gate was Senator Biden's proposal. It is strongly-worded (as far as Republicans are concerned) because it actually (gasp!) calls the escalation an escalation. It has cleared the first hurdle already, having been voted out of committee (12-9). It will soon be debated on the Senate floor.

The problem is that to advance to a floor vote, it has to have 60 votes behind it, since Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already promised to filibuster it. Unfortunately, it likely does not have those 60 votes. This is largely due to Republican Senator John Warner's alternative resolution.

Warner's proposal -- Be nice to Bush, but condemn the "augmentation"

Warner, who used to run the Senate Armed Services Committee, has proposed another version of the anti-escalation concurrent resolution. Except it doesn't call it that, it calls it an "augmentation." Whatever. It also has some fishy language in the first paragraph:

Whereas, we respect the Constitutional authorities given a President in Article II, Section 2, which states that "The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States;" it is not the intent of this resolution to question or contravene such authority, but to accept the offer to Congress made by the President on January 10, 2007 that, "if members have improvements that can be made, we will make them. If circumstances change, we will adjust"

This would be a more palatable version for Republicans to vote for. Robert Novak reports in the Washington Post that there was to have been a conference between Biden and Warner this past weekend to hammer out the differences between the two and come up with one piece of legislation that could get as many as 70 votes in the full Senate. Unfortunately, Novak reports, Warner decided not to negotiate and slammed the door on Biden's outreach.

So Democrats are in a bind. They could vote against Warner's proposed language in committee, and advance Biden's to the full floor for a vote. But they may not have votes enough on the floor to stop a filibuster on the Biden version. The smartest thing for Biden to do at this point would be to introduce a second version of his own resolution, incorporating some (but not the worst) of the language changes the Republicans are asking for. Quickly hustle it through committee, and send this version to the floor to vote on, while quietly withdrawing the earlier version.

This would be the best way to paint Republicans into a corner, by coming up with something that could muster more than 60 votes on the Senate floor, without the extreme language in the Warner proposal (Can you say: "bipartisan?" I knew you could!).

McCain's proposal -- Set milestones for the escalation's progress

John McCain, perhaps realizing that his presidential ambitions are swirling down the Iraq surge toilet, has introduced his own idea -- set concrete milestones for the Iraqi government to measure progress on the ground while the surge happens. It's a good idea, one that should have been tried years ago, but it's not going to pass now. It may pass later, though, not as a concurrent resolution, but as part of the second phase of this process.

 

The House, it should be noted, is staying out of the fray for now. This is wise of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and just goes to confirm my high opinion of her political acumen. By waiting to see what comes out of the Senate, Pelosi (1) defers to the Senate on foreign affairs (as is proper), and (2) avoids a messy fight in the House over the language. If you think the process is chaotic in the Senate, image over four times as many people (from both sides of the aisle) trying to put their fingerprints on the wording.

In the House, the Speaker can introduce the concurrent resolution which has already passed the Senate, for an up-or-down floor vote. If the Senate has already hashed the language out and voted in favor of it, then the House can vote on the exact same language, and the process is complete. No conference committee or presidential signature required! A concurrent resolution will thus emerge, and Republicans in both houses will have to go on the record either for or against the escalation. This will come back to haunt them in the next election, as they well know.

But again, while a concurrent resolution will indeed increase political pressure on the White House, and will be in the headlines for days (as it winds its way through the legislative process), sadly, it will not stop the escalation -- much less the war.

 

Cutting off the money (part 1)

Democrats, if they're smart and disciplined, can win the skirmish of the concurrent resolution. But the second battle to be won is going to be tougher, and the outcome is going to enrage the anti-war folks.

Bush is indeed right when he says that because he's got the money already, he can do whatever he wants with it. This is tough to swallow, but constitutionally he's on solid ground.

The most anti-war Democrats in the Senate may try a frontal attack on this, by revisiting the original Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that gave Bush the power to start the war. They suggest either forcing Bush to get an additional AUMF for the escalation, or voting to end the original AUMF, since we've completed its stated aims (finding the non-existent WMDs, and removing Saddam's regime). This would force Bush to get a new AUMF, to cover the ongoing Iraqi civil war.

Both of these are going to fail, at least initially. Even if every Democrat (other than Lieberman, of course) voted for it, they'd never get a 60-vote filibuster majority to vote for it now. They may not even have the votes to get it out of committee. And the real kicker -- because this is a law, not a concurrent resolution -- Bush gets the chance to veto it. Even if Democrats managed to push through Congress a confrontation on the AUMF, there is just no way they have the votes at this point to overturn a veto. This doesn't mean the attempt shouldn't be made, but it comes as a warning not to get your hopes up -- at least not yet.

But while Bush will get to order the soldiers in for his escalation (some are already on their way), his bank's about to run dry. Because the war isn't on the normal budget and the money from the last "supplemental" budget for Iraq is going to be gone at some point this spring, or possibly early summer. To continue the war, Bush is going to ask Congress next month for over $100 billion more for Iraq.

This is where the feathers are really going to fly. The anti-war groups on the left are going to loudly demand a cutoff of all funds, immediately. Senator Feingold is already proposing this, and will emerge as the strongest anti-war voice in the Senate, with many (including me) disappointed that he decided not to run for President. Barack Obama is backing a plan that sets a hard deadline, one year out, to get all the troops home. Hillary Clinton is proposing a troop cap of 130,000 troops (this will be too late to stop the surge, it should be noted, but she may change her mind by next month). John McCain's milestones will probably be appealing to many at this point, as a way to rein Bush in. Look for other presidential candidates to come up with competing plans, from both the left and the right.

What comes out of this fray is probably going to be an appropriation that ties Bush's hands in some way or another. Either it won't be for as much money as he wants (forcing him to come back again and again for more money, until next year's budget comes up for discussion), or it will come with so many strings attached he won't be able to use it for anything he wants, but instead will be held accountable for the way it is spent. The smartest thing Congress could do at this point is to force Bush to come up with an exit strategy at the end of a certain period, or else the money stops [Breaking news: Feingold just proposed a very similar idea today, sorry I don't have a link to the story...]. But it remains to be seen whether this will have the votes or not.

But Congress is just not going to cut off all funding at this point. Democrats will be so terrified of the "you aren't supporting the troops in the field" mantra from the right, that they will vote more money for Iraq. One way or another, Bush will get some more money, albeit with lots of strings attached. He will then have the option to veto this, but if he does so then he would be open to charges of "not supporting the troops in the field."

More Iraq war money approved will send the anti-war folks into apoplexy, it should be noted. This is good, as they will need to keep the pressure up on the issue all spring and summer long. Marches, rallies, petitions, TV appearances, anything they can muster. Keep Congress' feet to the fire! Show the growing public support for withdrawal in every way you can.

 

Cutting off the money (part 2)

The beginning of the end is most likely going to have to wait until next year's federal budget, which is supposed to be in place on October 1st. Note that "supposed to," as it rarely is. They're usually late. And sometimes Congress punts altogether and just doesn't pass a budget at all (like the last Congress).

So it may not actually wait for the budget to be hashed out, but some time at the end of the summer congressional recess, in the early autumn, Congress will begin to end the war, one way or another.

The only thing that can stop this from happening is if the escalation actually works, and Iraq calms down. But in that case, Bush may surprise everyone and start pulling troops out anyway (while loudly declaring: "I was right, everyone else was wrong!").

Assuming that Iraq is still a mess by midsummer, what is going to happen is the collapse of the Republican Party's position on the issue. Republicans know to their very core that if we still have 150,000 troops in Iraq on election day 2008, Democrats are going to gain not only the White House, but sweeping majorities in Congress as well. And they're terrified of this prospect. Karl Rove promised them a "permanent Republican majority" and instead they're going to be facing a permanent Democratic majority.

So while a few Republicans are jumping ship now on legally meaningless concurrent resolutions, by summertime it will be a full-scale rout. Republicans will have the time and distance from Bush to say, "Well, we tried the surge, but it obviously didn't work. It's time to bring the troops home." Some of them are already saying this publicly in one way or another: "If the surge isn't working by summer or fall, I won't support it any more." As time goes by this summer, more and more of them will abandon Bush, publicly.

It's impossible to tell from this distance what form this will take, but at this point, Republicans in Congress are going to have had enough -- and they're going to tell Bush in no uncertain terms to "declare victory" and start bringing troops home. And to bring enough of them home by election day that they have a prayer of keeping their jobs.

Sooner or later, a delegation of congressional Republicans is going to knock on the White House's door, and tell Bush that "it's over." But until the pieces are in place for that to happen, the soldiers are not going to start coming home.

 

[Note: I didn't write this article to discourage anti-war protesters. I personally cut my "lefty" eye-teeth protesting Reagan's wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador on the National Mall in DC, before some of today's protesters were born. I salute today's crop of idealistic college students and other everyday folks who get out and have their voices heard. I just don't want them to give up too soon, or to get too frustrated with the process. We can stop this war, but it's going to take some time. If we keep the pressure up, we can see it happen this year. But at the same time, it's not going to happen next week, or even next month.]

 

See all Chris' Huffington Posts at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-weigant/