- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2007

No one believes crafting congressional policy toward the war in Iraq is a game — it is deadly serious business with life-and-death consequences. Most Democratic and Republican lawmakers share that conviction. Yet over this past week, some House Democrats may have added to the public’s disdain and confusion over Congress’s ability to effectively mediate the Iraq situation.

Whatever you think about the Iraq war, or Congress’ role in challenging the president’s military tactics, mixing legislation about troop pullout plans with other spending measures makes a difficult and controversial issue seem, well — unseemly. House Democrats should consider their withdrawal plan on a stand-alone basis, not conflate it with spending on farm aid, hurricane relief, raising the minimum wage or other domestic priorities. They should keep a clean supplemental spending measure for government priorities and their Iraq withdrawal plan on separate tracks. Instead, they want to add billions in domestic spending, apparently playing a legislative version of that old military board game — call it Sausage Making Stratego.

Choosing a more straightforward approach, Senate Democrats last week proposed a binding joint resolution requiring some troop pull out within 120 days and a complete redeployment by March 31, 2008. Whether you agree with the tactic of congressional micromanagement of the war or not, at this point Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada wants to consider the resolution separately from the supplemental spending bill. That is a wiser course.

The battle in the House centers on a so-called supplemental appropriations bill that President Bush requested. The White House wants about another $100 billion to fund ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Viewing this as a “must pass” bill that the president would have difficulty vetoing, House Democrats want to attach their version of an Iraq pullout plan to the war-funding measure, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others believe puts the White House in an untenable position. The problem for Democrats is that the White House unsheathed the veto pen with alacrity last week and they have the votes on the Hill to sustain it.

With all these moving parts — the military’s need for funds, House Democrats’ unwillingness to give the money without strings attached, Senate Democrats pursuing a different tactic to put their imprimatur on the war debate — it’s unclear where this all will end up. Tempers boiled over several times last week, with angry Democrats stomping out of meetings with their leaders and berating anti-war constituents in the hallways.

In the short run, however, House Democrats’ current decision to mix war strategy with funding for farmers, children’s health and perhaps even raising the minimum wage dangerously merges a serious vote of conscience with the perception of porkbarrel spending and vote trading. Carl Hulse of the New York Times captured the current perception that the Democrats have opened the candy store to win support, suggesting that getting more votes for the Iraq withdrawal plan was simply a matter of adding more spending. “The emerging legislation will also have money for military health care and unrelated provisions that can attract votes,” Mr. Hulse wrote on Sunday. For the party that last November campaigned on a claim to “clean up Washington,” this is a polluted tactical decision.

Voters don’t like to witness this kind of legislative sausage-making, and they certainly don’t want to use it to manufacture military tactics. But that’s what’s happening this week as the House readies this massive supplemental. The public’s perceptions of vote-trading and special-interest politics are only fanned into flames of cynicism by this kind of procedure.

Anti-war Democrats are passionate about their opposition to the White House policy. They deserve a vote on a binding law that would either cut off funding by a date certain or at least set a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops. But the House’s decision to move forward with a bill that mixes domestic spending along with an Iraq pullout timetable creates a dangerous mix of pork and decisions that should be made by Gen. David Patraeus. They give their opponents the opening to call this whole process sausage-making Stratego — not a helpful epithet to the serious business at hand.

House Democrats should consider changing tactics and craft a stand-alone plan to pull out troops and put that question before the Congress. If they can’t cobble together enough votes for a plan like that to pass on its own merits, maybe it’s a sign more consensus is needed before they pull the plug on the troops.

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