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Abdication: Democrats Give Up Their Legislative Birthright in Deal on Funding the War

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"What are we supposed to tell them and their families? To wait another year until a new administration and a new Congress starts listening to the American people and brings this tragedy to a close?" -- Sen. Russ Feingold

The newspaper headlines of December 19 tell the story: "Senate Adds $70 Billion for Wars in Spending Bill" (New York Times); and "Iraq Funds Approved In Senate Budget Bill" (Washington Post).

As reported by The Times:

By an overwhelming 70-to-25 vote (on a Republican motion), senators moved to provide the money sought by President Bush after the defeat of two Democratic-led efforts to tie the money to troop withdrawals. Crowed the Senate Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky: "We have come to a very successful conclusion of this year's Congress." On that vote, 48 Republicans were joined by 21 Democrats and one independent in supporting Iraq funds, with 23 Democrats, one independent and Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) opposed.

The Post's summation had a more accurate bite to it:

The Senate last night approved an omnibus spending bill to fund the federal government for the rest of fiscal year 2008, "shortly after bowing to President Bush's demand for $70 billion in unrestricted funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan." ("When is enough enough?" plaintively asked Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) during the debate.) The Republican amendment took $31 billion for Afghanistan operations -- the only war-related funding in the House bill approved Monday -- and added almost $40 billion for Iraq.

The Los Angeles Times account damnedly read:

"Congressional Democrats' yearlong campaign to bring the war in Iraq to an end concluded with a whimper Tuesday... As they have all year, Senate Republicans prevented the move to set dates by which the president would have to begin and complete bringing American forces home. And Democratic leaders gave in to demands from the Bush administration for more money for the war without any congressionally imposed restrictions....The once-heated war debate closed with little suspense and no drama. Senators spent as much time Tuesday delivering tributes to retiring Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott as they did debating the war." (sic)

Thus, the Democrats wrapped up their first year in power on both sides of the Capitol since 1994. "With Iraq war funding dominating debate and overshadowing other achievements, President Bush could claim another victory over rivals who took power on an antiwar platform," read the account of the company town's newspaper. The war debate ended up as part of a Democratic-choreographed exercise intended to meet the President's demand for more war financing while sparing anti-war Democrats from having to back the money to secure approval of the budget bill. However, the one binding withdrawal plan -- requiring that most troops be redeployed in nine months -- was defeated, 71 to 24.

One Year in Power and the Democratic Leadership Trapped in a Cul-de-Sac

But that is not the whole story. Eager to vacate the Capitol a week before Christmas, the Democratic leadership in Congress struck a deal between the two houses that fatefully insured the next Administration -- in 2009 -- will be burdened with withdrawing American troops from Iraq. Incredibly, the leverage afforded by power over the "purse strings" -- that could have been more effectively exercised six months ago -- was surrendered and President Bush left free to prolong the occupation with fresh funding.

So much for the argument that impeachment proceedings in the House had to be put aside in 2007 so that Congress could focus on getting this country out of Iraq.

Even this late in the year, there was a final, if difficult, option. The Democrats in the Senate, more than nominally in control, could have put on the legislative brakes, and stalled the agenda. And, if push came to shove, they could have followed the example of Sen. Chris Dodd on FISA, and executed -- not just threatened -- their own filibuster against the McConnell amendment providing more "interim" funding for the war in Iraq.

Intense Commitment Versus a Mess of Porridge

Were the anti-war Democrats intensely committed enough to the point of using obstructionist tactics of their own to force something like a withdrawal deadline from Iraq on the White House? It would have taken a substantial plurality of Democratic Senators to stage a real "stop work order" gambit over the holidays. What a limp statement from the often pugilistic Democratic majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada: "You usually recognize that you have something that's O.K. when both negotiators are unhappy with what they've gotten."

But they were willing to trade additional money for the war -- with not even the suggestion of a
withdrawal date for American troops -- in return for money for thousands of "earmarked" domestic projects in states and congressional districts already approved by the House.

The Bigger Bluff

Of course, without such war funds free of withdrawal language, the President had said he would veto the entire omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2008, if it reached his desk before Christmas. Then, why not let him bear the responsibility for slowing down the government; and leave Republican senators to take the rap for yet one more filibuster against any amendment tying war funds to the idea of withdrawal? The money would have been found, via Pentagon reprogramming, to fund the troops until February. Moreover, did the experienced Democratic leadership really believe the old bugaboo that -- if they had approved a continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government functioning temporarily -- the country faced the prospect of shuttered military facilities and furloughs for military employees as the Pentagon moved funds from other accounts to finance the war?

There can be no excuse for the Democratic leadership to have allowed itself to be trapped in such a cul-de-sac, while engaging in parliamentary legerdemain under which the House bill included no money for the Iraqi war -- but did include funds for the war in Afghanistan -- and left it to the Senate to vote the money for Iraq! What does it do for public confidence when the Democrats in House and Senate -- before leaving for the two-week Thanksgiving recess -- pledged not to give Bush any Iraq funding without withdrawal timelines, even though they knew he would threaten to veto the appropriations measures needed to keep the federal government running?

The Culture of Congress and the Long-Term Consequence

The sad truth is that Senators and Representatives are so invested in the routine of Congress' holiday breaks out of Washington -- especially in December -- that they set themselves up for being "had" by the permanently-in-session White House. Any president and his advisers sense this hole in the legislative wall, and know that, if the big tests of will can be put off until within weeks of Christmas, they can control the budgetary showdowns from the bully pulpit.

Of surpassing strategic political importance, the Democrats have allowed themselves to be dragooned into funding the continued occupation of Iraq. The burden will then fall to a Democratic president to extricate the country from a war uniquely cooked up by the Bush White House.