THE BLOG
03/09/2007 06:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Congress And Iraq; Sausages And Laws

"Je weniger die Leute darüber wissen, wie Würste und Gesetze gemacht werden, desto besser schlafen sie nachts."

("The less the people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they sleep at night.")

-- Otto von Bismarck (often misquoted)

For those of you who bravely sneer at Bismarck's sage advice by actually paying attention to what happens in Washington, you should note that Nancy Pelosi called a news conference yesterday to announce that House Democrats have finally hammered out a plan to get out of Iraq. It's not going to please everyone, but it is a serious piece of legislation and hence bears close examination.

The details of the compromise legislation are outlined in this recent Washington Post article. The article also lists some of the obstacles it will have getting passed. While generally a factual and well-written article, it should be noted that the Post couldn't resist also running this companion article with the familiar and condescending "Democrats are so disorganized" theme.

I have written on the subject of realistically predicting how Congress will end the war in Iraq previously. Back in January, I wrote:

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. ... 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.

Which brings us to Pelosi's compromise legislation (which has been given the catchy title "U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans Health and Iraq Accountability Act"). Rather than settle on one plan, it aims to take the best ideas from the various plans Democrats have been proposing and toss them all together (maybe they should have called it "Everything But The Kitchen Sink Act"... but I digress). There are a handful of good ideas in the bill: Jack Murtha's limits on deploying troops until they are equipped and trained and rested; a somewhat-flexible timetable for withdrawal of American troops; a set of milestones for the Iraqi government to meet; and a few billion dollars more than Bush asked for, to make it more palatable to conservative Democrats and (they hope) Republicans.

But the most important point, a subtlety lost on many, is that the whole package is tied to the supplemental funds request (the $100 billion). In other words, this is not a toothless concurrent resolution, this is not even a stand-alone condemnation of the war -- this is a bill that has to pass (in some form or another) or the war is going to run out of money within a very few months. Which means that, one way or another, it is headed for a showdown with Bush. More on that in a minute, but it does bring me to the second of three Bismarck quotes in this column:

 

"He who has his thumb on the purse has the power."

-- Otto von Bismarck

 

The first part of the legislation is a brilliant idea championed by Jack Murtha. It is a masterful bit of legislative jiujitsu that turns the tables on Republicans (which is why they've been so terrified of it, and why right-wing pundits have been personally attacking Murtha ever since he came up with the idea). Murtha's idea is to tie Bush's hands by requiring any soldiers deployed to Iraq to be (1) fully trained, (2) fully equipped, and (3) have had the adequate rest time off the battlefield which Pentagon regulations require. You can see why Republicans are terrified of the prospect of voting against such an idea -- how can you say you "support the troops" if you vote against any of these common-sense ideas which actually do support the troops instead of just paying lip service to the idea? But since the Republicans have been making such a stink, Pelosi has seemingly softened the language a bit, by adding a loophole whereby Bush could send untrained, unequipped and unrested soldiers into Iraq by personally signing off a waiver for them to go, no matter what the Pentagon said. Although the mainstream media is painting this as somehow "backing down" from Murtha's original stance, it is also a brilliant way to paint Bush into a corner. If troops were demonstrably not ready to go, and Bush signed off on them anyway, then he will be the one to pay the political price with the military families and the public at large.

The second part is a timetable for troop withdrawal. No matter what is going on in Iraq at the time, a year from now troops will start to redeploy out of Iraq. Six months later, they'll all be out (conveniently, just before the 2008 election). Various people have been pushing versions of this timetable for some time now, and although this is longer than some want (the Senate is talking about a one year timetable to get all the troops out, six months faster than Pelosi is proposing), it is, as Speaker Pelosi says "a date certain for withdrawal."

[Memo to Nancy Pelosi, every politician in both parties, and the entire news media: Will all of you PLEASE stop using the term "date certain," as it just reveals you as pretentious and condescending elitists? While I'm at it, can you also please stop using the pseudo-poetical term "blood and treasure" as it conveys exactly the same message. Thank you. We now resume our regularly scheduled column....]

The third piece of this legislation is closely tied to the second. President Bush is given two dates to certify to Congress that certain benchmarks or milestones have been met by the Iraqi government. If Bush cannot so certify such progress, then it triggers the immediate start of troop withdrawal, before the March, 2008 hard deadline.

There are also a few restrictions on Bush's future plans for the region, most notably forestalling a war with Iran and banning permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq. These have been a "must have" item for the Democratic left, which is assumably why Pelosi included them.

The final facet is sweetening the pot of money being appropriated. This is done for two reasons, both of them political. The first can be filed under the "strike while the iron is hot" maxim. Veterans health care is the hot issue of the day, so Democrats are proposing to toss a few billion extra dollars at the problem. There are other smaller bequests (such as increasing funding for Afghanistan), all designed to maximize political goodwill with the public (look at the title of the Act again to see how this is being served up). The secondary reason for this largesse is to entice both "Blue Dog" (i.e., relatively conservative) Democrats as well as Republicans in the House to vote for the whole package. The success of this gambit remains to be seen, but as politics goes, it's probably a worthwhile attempt.

Much like making sausages, however, what goes in to Congress doesn't always resemble what comes out the other side. Pelosi's legislation faces some tall hurdles before it even gets to Bush's desk. First, it has to get through committee and out on to the House floor. This will probably be the easiest hurdle to surmount, so expect a final wording of the bill within a week or so.

The next step is passing a floor vote in the House. The danger here is from within the Democratic party. The hard-line antiwar Democrats in the House will be faced with a hard choice: vote against Pelosi's bill because it doesn't end the war soon enough, or vote for it since it's the best compromise they can hope for at this time. Pelosi has already indicated she will make this choice easier by allowing a separate vote on a strongly-worded amendment from the antiwar Democrats. This will most likely pull in the timetable for troop withdrawal considerably (the end of 2007 has already been mentioned as a possible deadline for all troops to be out). This amendment will fail, but it will allow the hardliners to have a vote and have their say. The real question is what they do after this symbolic vote -- support Pelosi's bill or try to kill it to get a better one. Remember, it only takes 15 Democrats to defect to swing the balance of the House.

Of course, the failure of any "get out now" motion is going to outrage Democratic antiwar activists. Look for strong denunciations in the blogosphere. But they are in danger of making the same mistake as the Republicans who are trying to force Democrats into voting to stop all war funding immediately, or just shut up about the whole matter. The American people are smarter than either side gives them credit for. Poll after poll shows that while a solid two-thirds of the public thinks Iraq is a mess, the surge isn't a good idea, and that it's time to talk about an exit strategy, support for immediate withdrawal is just not that high. For instance, in a recent poll, 53 percent favored setting a deadline for troop withdrawal. But when you break that 53 percent down, 7 percent think the deadline should be two years or longer, 21 percent would like a one-year deadline, and only 24 percent want a six-month deadline. And while 58 percent agree with Murtha's strategy, only 46 percent want to restrict funding for the war. [View the poll's raw data.]

Assuming Pelosi marshals her forces and gets her bill passed (with possible slight rewording to convince last-minute fence-sitters from both parties), it then faces the daunting prospects of the Senate. Senate Democrats are already pushing their own Iraq exit strategies, and a tighter one-year timetable for withdrawal. Plus, they have already indicated that they will allow Republican amendments to whatever they propose, so look for some shenanigans from the GOP side of the Senate aisle. In the end, of course, they'll need 60 votes to get anything to the floor for a vote. Which means getting 10 or 11 Republicans to sign on to the measure.

This all but guarantees that whatever comes out of the Senate is going to be very different than the House legislation. Which leads us to the conference committee between the two houses. This is where the final wording of the bill will take place, and will (no doubt) lead to massive rewriting of the language in an effort to make it acceptable to both House Democrats and those crucial 10 or 11 Republicans in the Senate. This will be a tough row to hoe.

But remember, this bill has to pass. Some form of this bill has got to pass Congress, or else the war is going to lose all funding within a matter of months. Which would be political suicide for all concerned.

Which leads us to the final hurdle, the hardest to surmount and the most important one of all -- Bush's veto pen. This is going to be a showdown on the order of Clinton and Gingrich shutting the government down. Which side "blinks" first -- congressional Democrats or the White House -- will determine what bill actually gets signed into law. If Bush vetoes the bill and Congress refuses to pass anything else, then Bush is the one who will get the blame for de-funding the war. If the White House vetoes the bill, but then offers some concessions (by suggesting minor changes in language, or picking one or two issues and saying "these have to go") which are rejected by congressional Democrats, then the Democrats will look like the obstructionists.

This will be a high stakes and very dicey game for Pelosi, Reid, and Bush to play. But remember, there is a timetable ticking away in the background. Within a matter of weeks, the Iraq money is going to run out. Before that happens, something has to pass and be signed into law. So, unlike toothless antiwar concurrent resolutions, both sides know that this time failure to pass a law just isn't an option.

Which brings me to my final Bismarck quote, which I leave you with:

 

"Politics is the art of the possible."

-- Otto von Bismarck

 

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