03/29/2007 02:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

To Legislate or Oppose: Conversations with My Son, and Myself, over Congress and the War

"President Bush should "calm down with the threats; there's a new Congress in town. This war without end has gone on far too long, and we are here to end it."
-- Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi

As I often observed when serving as chief legislative assistant to the Senate Democratic Whip many years ago, writing major legislation that will ultimately pass in both the 435-member House and the 100-member Senate is a lot like making sausage. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain the "purity" and consistency of the ingredients. No better example is extant than the two versions of the supplemental defense appropriations bill with their similar amount of funds for Iraq and Afghanistan, but different policy statements on deadlines for withdrawing American combat troops from Iraq.

Hard to believe, but the U.S. Senate has gone on record in favor of a troop withdrawal date from Iraq, with Democrats barely obtaining the majority they needed to deliver a clear rebuke to President Bush's war policy. By a vote of 50 to 48, the Senate defeated the Republican effort to strip from the military spending bill any mention of a withdrawal date; and later passed the overall defense funds supplemental. The legislation contains language stipulating that the wartime commander-in-chief begin pulling an unspecified number of combat troops out of a "civil war" within 120 days of enactment, and gradually move toward the nonbinding goal of redeployment out of Iraq by March 31, 2008.

Of course, the Senate bill must be reconciled with the tougher House measure passed last week. But the proceedings in both bodies represent another step in a vote-by-vote strategy by the Democrats to steadily erode support for the president's Iraq policy and find an alternative to it. Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who provided the margin of victory, said it was time the Bush White House recognized that we do not live in a monarchy.

The House of Representatives had voted 218 to 212 to require the president to bring most American combat troops home from Iraq by September 2008. Also included in the package was a complex series of political and economic benchmarks tied conditionally to timetables for U.S. troop pullouts, culminating in a firm deadline of Aug. 31, 2008, for the removal of American combat forces.

This narrow House vote mandating an August 2008 deadline for the withdrawal of American troops was a bold achievement in a test of the resolve of the new House Democratic leadership and its ability to pull together an ideologically and geographically diverse membership behind a plan pointing the United States out of Iraq. Speaker Pelosi put the question bluntly to her party members: Did they want a headline saying, "Congress is standing up to President Bush," or "Congress gives President Bush free rein"?

Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) had wanted an immediate withdrawal and resisted the idea of voting for almost $100 billion in additional spending for the war. But he came to realize that a failure to pass the withdrawal provision would become a victory for the Bush administration, that is, the passage of an emergency spending bill with no conditions at all. In deciding to vote for the bill, he said: "I'm into results. I'm not into therapy."

These back-to-back House and Senate votes were among the first of what will be many roll calls potentially pitting Congress against the president in the conduct of the war. The sequence confirmed that power in Washington has indeed shifted. Bush and Republican congressional leaders had hoped Democrats would splinter and open the way for a pro-executive resolution of the Iraq issue. Instead, the more liberal antiwar Democrats discovered a common interest with their moderate colleagues. Bush's "take-it-or-leave-it" approach to the bill may have hurt the political standing of Republican members of Congress by forcing them to back an open-ended commitment in Iraq at a time when a decided majority of their constituents are demanding a different approach.


What comes next depends on whether Bush or the Democrats "blink." As the House and the Senate go to conference in negotiations on the military spending package, both Democratic leaders and the White House appear to believe they hold strong positions.

President Bush's uncompromising threat (backed by almost all Republicans in the House) to veto the defense bill should it include any withdrawal language, and his effective imposition of an April 15 deadline for the funding bill--"our men and women in uniform will face significant disruptions" after that date--could result in solidifying Democratic ranks. But to the point of holding back on finally passing the defense money bill--even after a veto--until the president agrees to accept withdrawal deadlines?

With both chambers approving a time frame, it is now almost certain the final compromise in conference will include some binding withdrawal requirements, potentially setting up a constitutional confrontation. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), quoting Yogi Berra's "When you reach a fork in the road, take it," said, "we're at the fork in the road." The above to the contrary notwithstanding, even with deadlines included in the defense bill, President Bush might choose to sign it--rather than veto--and then issue one of his "signing statements" making it clear that he does not feel bound by the language he just signed into law!


Heretofore, my general position has been that Democrats should constantly oppose the White House on Iraq--for example, in registering against the "surge"--by offering amendments to one piece of binding authorization or appropriations legislation after another, rather than try to legislate "solutions" to the quagmire. In other words, wrap responsibility for the war firmly around the Administration's neck in every way possible rather than trying to be "constructive" in formulating policy through bipartisan compromises written into law. Hang the Iraq albatross firmly around the Bush/Cheney neck.

The opposition should oppose and oppose, rather than be co-opted into joint responsibility for continuing the occupation. This approach would serve to make clearer sharp party differences on Iraq in the November 2008 elections, when Democrats stand a good chance of adding several seats in the Senate and enhancing their majority in the House. Here I definitely dissent from the conventional wisdom offered by James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University: "If Democrats want to do well in 2008 on the House side and the Senate side, they have to show they can govern. They have to show they can do more than investigate and push back on the president." Not when the country has such a group of incompetent no-nothings in power in the White house; and radical extremists on policy, domestic and foreign.

At "what price" do the Democrats participate in writing into legislation a gradual but definitive time-frame for withdrawal from Iraq? In other words, is the price of acting "responsibly" just too steep, both for the national interest and democratic government?


In a series of e-mail exchanges with my son, over many weeks, his unequivocal answer has been that the price is "too high!" Representative John Lewis (D-GA) speaks for him when declaring his opposition to any defense supplemental: "I will not and cannot vote for another dollar or another dime to support this war." From my son's perspective, the various legislative proposals being seriously debated do not go far enough and fast enough to force the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, now. Of course, Lewis cannot be a "Congress of one."

My progeny has become so disillusioned with the incrementalism of the new (233 out of 435) Democratic majority in the House--not to mention their shaky Senate counterpart--that he views with deep skepticism any action they are likely to take on the war. Four years into the Iraq debacle, he wants them to end the war in Iraq through a kind of legislative fiat. But an absolute cutoff of funds would have to garner enough votes, first, to pass in both the House and the Senate. More to the point, American public opinion is not there, yet.

He frequently attends anti-war rallies in Washington. Since he is very dissatisfied with the response from MC's, I ask him what is it he wants to happen in Washington? Bring the government down through mass demonstrations? He does favor the beginning of impeachment proceedings against Bush in the House, and I am in agreement that there are solid grounds for indictment. James Madison put that "scarecrow" in the constitutional cornfield for a reason. But then I always point to the dangerous Vice President in the line of succession, a kind of political insurance policy for the commander-in-chief. Indeed, he is worthy of being first in line in the dock.

Named after the seventh president of the United States, my son is a serious student of the national government. But I still remind him that there are 435 members of the House, from 50 states spread across the country--and that anti-war sentiment is not spread evenly, geographically. Nevertheless, he would have voted with Rep. Lewis, correctly understanding that to vote for the supplemental defense spending bill is to pour enough money into the Pentagon pipeline to enable the Bush White House to prosecute the war well into next year. And, of course, he will not be satisfied with any "compromise" withdrawal language, even if binding, that emerges in the House/Senate conference report.

However, I have rejoined that we have to keep the debate over the war alive in Congress, with peaceful demonstrations and losing roll-call votes--if necessary--one after the other in order to show the people that their MC's are still fighting and to hold out hope to the majority in a democracy. Events in Iraq are likely to continue to play into the hands of the anti-war movement, and build momentum.

Here is a direct quote from me in one of our lengthy internet dialogues: "Since I do not favor the overthrow of our constitutional system of government (just making it work better); and since I think semi-violent public protests would play into the hands of this damn White House with its 9/11 "culture of fear;" and since the draft is not a motivating force among an electorate asked to sacrifice nothing (except the trauma of seeing those awful scenes from Baghdad on their TV screens); and since the impeachment of Bush is not about to happen with Cheney as Veep--I am left with thinking about how to nudge the ball downfield in a 51-49 Senate and a 233-202 House by squeezing the White House on every war vote opportunity. Of course, there can be legitimate differences about how best to do this."


Assuming late April arrives with continuing deadlock between Congress and the White House over withdrawal deadlines, I would favor a firm stand by the House against passing ANY supplemental defense appropriations bill. This might prompt Bush to commit an unconstitutional act in spending money not authorized by Congress, or the ruse of shifting funds among Pentagon accounts--on Thursday morning Congress was notified that in order to meet the force-protection needs of the Marine Corps and the Army, the Defense Department is borrowing or reprogramming funds from other Marine and Army procurement programs-- and thereby contribute substantially to a constitutional crisis that he might very well lose. I said "might."

However, in the meantime, my hunch is that it will become clear that there is so much money in the Pentagon pipeline, as has so often been the case from past appropriations yet to be spent, that the funding of the troops will go on, under a cloud. I think we have to face the probability that Congress will not be able to force a withdrawal from Iraq before the next administration is stuck with the occupation. That is, UNLESS conditions get much worse on the ground in Iraq.