End the war. Fund the troops. You can sum up the argument between George W. Bush and the Democratic majorities in Congress in just six words. Both the House and the Senate have now passed supplemental appropriations that in different ways call for a beginning of an end to our military involvement in Iraq.
George W. Bush threatens to veto them and any supplemental that places limits on military operations. It’s clear the Democrats don’t have the votes to override a veto, or anything close. The Senate version, passed 51 to 47, sets a goal of withdrawing most of the troops from Iraq by next March. The House version, passed 218 to 212, sets a date by which all troops must be gone: September 2008.
The House and Senate must reconcile the two versions, and then the leadership must get the common version through both houses. That may not be easy. Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat, says he’s reluctant to vote for a version with a timetable. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has reportedly conceded the conference committee will “take the Senate language on goals.”
But that will be a hard sell in the House. The 71-member Progressive Caucus, headed by Lynne Woolsey and Barbara Lee (who cast the sole vote against military action in Afghanistan), in February called for withdrawal in six months. Mrs. Pelosi and the majority leader twisted arms and ladled out enough pork to get most of its members in line in March on a bill with a deadline. Now, they’ll have to work to get them to vote for a bill without one.
The alternative is to get Republican votes. But only two of them were for the March bill, and few are likely to support anything but a “clean bill,” with no deadlines, goals or benchmarks.
Such a measure would enrage many Democrats. CodePink and other antiwar organizations have already been staging demonstrations. They would get really angry if a Democratic House passes a “clean bill.”
The Democrats will face the same problem when Mr. Bush vetoes their bill. They would like to end the war, but they dare not end funding to the troops. They can hope the sympathetic mainstream media will blame Mr. Bush. But they can’t help remembering that the last time an opposition Congress refused to meet a president’s demand to fund the government it was the speaker — Newt Gingrich — not President Bill Clinton who plummeted in the polls.
Conceding this point earlier this month was Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, as well as one of the most visible Democratic presidential candidates, Barack Obama. Mr. Levin has called for a bill setting political goals for the Iraqi government.
Whether Mr. Bush and congressional Republicans would accept that is unclear. It could be argued it would enable Mr. Bush to play the good cop with the Iraqis, with the Democratic Congress as the bad cop. Or it could be portrayed as micromanaging by 535 commanders in chief.
We witness here a division in the Democratic Party — its politicians and its voters — we have seen ever since military action started to be considered in 2002. Then, most House Democrats voted against the Iraq war resolution, most Senate Democrats for it. The lineup today is not necessarily the same: Mr. Levin, who voted against the war resolution, insists the troops must be funded; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who voted for the war resolution and said last November that of course the troops will be funded, now says he’s for Sen. Russ Feingold’s March 2008 deadline.
What’s curious is that congressional Democrats don’t seem much interested in what is actually happening in Iraq. The commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, returns to Washington this week, but last week Mrs. Pelosi’s office said “scheduling conflicts” prevented him from briefing House members. Two days later, the members-only meeting was scheduled, but that brings to mind the fact Mrs. Pelosi and other top House Democrats skipped a March 8 Pentagon videoconference with Gen. Petraeus.
How long this fight will go on is unclear. Some Democrats predict it will continue for months. But their dilemma remains the same. They want to be seen as acting to end the war. But they dare not be seen as not funding the troops.
Michael Barone is a nationally syndicated columnist.