- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The dance of legislation, to borrow the title from Eric Redmond’s classic book about Congress, moves from skeptical gazing to closer engagement this week as Congress readies the Iraq supplemental appropriations measure to send to President Bush. Everyone knows this first attempt at replenishing war funding is a boomerang bill and will quickly return to the Capitol with a veto message attached. For now, Democrats in Congress and the White House appear dug in on certain key principles. But both sides need to do some fancy footwork to resolve these issues. How the veto waltz unfolds on this must-pass war-funding bill will test the limits of divided government in Washington.

In today’s more polarized Washington, executive/legislative confrontations occur more quickly than in the past. For example, Republican President Nixon held out about a year before he vetoed his first bill from a Democratic Congress. President Carter never faced divided government, but he had rocky relations with his own party in Congress. Still, it took until November of his first term for him to veto his initial bill. President Reagan confronted a Democratic House and Republican Senate, and it also took Congress until November of 1981, (nearly a year), to present him with a bill he would not sign.

President George H.W. Bush and the Democratic majority in Congress quickened the confrontation pace. His initial veto was in June 1989 during his first year in office. President Clinton did not veto any bills in his first two years because he saw more eye-to-eye with his Democrat majority in Congress. But once he faced divided government in January 1995, he also unsheathed the veto pen in June of that year. President George W. Bush has only vetoed one bill so far, but he also enjoyed a Republican majority in Congress during his first six years in office. His circumstances now are more akin to his father’s presidency in 1989, and the volume of vetoes will crop up this spring like legislative dandelions. His first veto in the 110th Congress will occur in the next week or so, signaling one of the earliest executive/legislative confrontations in recent history.

But while a White House veto of this Iraq spending bill is baked in the cake, as they say, the big question is, “What happens next?” Finding a solution to the supplemental appropriations bill represents the first major test of this divided government. Without splitting their Caucus, will Democrats find a way to provide fundingforthetroopsminus micromanaging conditions? Can the White House accept something less than no-strings-attached in conditions on the funding? What about the $21 billion in extra farm aid, hurricane relief and other domestic spending Democrats larded on to the measure? Democrats made a small concession to the White House by including the Senate version concerning benchmarks for progress in the war in the final conference report. But President Bush also rightly labels this provision as too much legislative interference in the conduct of the war — “too much General Pelosi, not enough General Petraeus,” one Republican opined. Other signs suggest after the veto, they may compromise further. Several Hill sources say it’s unclear where the Democrats will move next. Some Democrats on the House side recently floated the idea of a two-month extension of funding, but “that would create problems in the Senate,” a House GOP source told me. “Plus, what kind of message does it send to the troops that Congress wants to fund a war in two-month increments,” he said.

How this measure gets resolved has obvious major implications for the future of the war in Iraq. Yet it also sets an important tone for presidential/legislative relations. It opens a new window to watch how the Democratic Congress and the Republicans on the Hill and in the White House dance on critical public policy measures. Don’t expect a smooth process, and the two sides won’t hug long after the music stops. And get ready for a lot of shouting and foot stomping along the way. But this is an important first dance — a critical time to see who leads and who follows — and if partisan wallflowers can become lawmaking partners. Yet in the end, this round probably goes to the president. Democrats may need to choose a different dance and a new song to give voice to their anti-war sentiments.

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