By E. J. Dionne Jr.Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Within three weeks, the United States could face a constitutional crisis over President Bush's war policy in Iraq. The president and his allies seem to want this fight. Yet insisting upon a confrontation will be another mistake in a long line of bad judgments about a conflict that grows more unpopular by the day.
Last week's narrow House vote imposing an August 2008 deadline for the withdrawal of American troops was hugely significant, even if the bill stands no chance of passing in the Senate this week in its current form. The vote was a test of the resolve of the new House Democratic leadership and its ability to pull together an ideologically diverse membership behind a plan pointing the United States out of Iraq.
Within three weeks, the United States could face a constitutional crisis over President Bush's war policy in Iraq.
To understand the importance of the vote, one need only consider what would have been said had it gone the other way: A defeat would have signaled House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's powerlessness to create a governing majority from a fragmented Democratic membership. In a do-or-die vote, Pelosi lived to fight another day by creating a consensus in favor of withdrawal that included some of her party's most liberal and most conservative members.
The vote is only the first of what will be many difficult roll calls potentially pitting Congress against the president on the conduct of war policy. It confirmed that power in Washington has indeed shifted. Bush and his Republican congressional allies had hoped Democrats would splinter and open the way for a pro-Bush resolution of the Iraq issue. Instead, antiwar Democrats, including Web-based groups such as MoveOn.org, discovered a common interest with their moderate colleagues.
Oddly, the president's harsh rhetoric against the House version of the supplemental appropriations bill to finance the Iraq war may have been decisive in sealing Pelosi's victory. "The vehemence with which the president opposed it made it clear to a lot of people that this was a change in direction and that it was significant," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Tom Matzzie, the Washington director of MoveOn, saw the Bush effect rallying his own antiwar membership. "Bush is our worst enemy," Matzzie said, "and our best ally."
Now, Van Hollen argues, Bush's "take-it-or-leave-it" approach to the bill is also "hurting the political standing of his Republican colleagues" in Congress by forcing them to back an open-ended commitment in Iraq at a time when their constituents are demanding a different approach.
Bush continued his effort to polarize the debate in his weekly radio address Saturday, condemning the House vote as a "political statement" and urging Congress "to put our troops first, not politics" by sending him "a clean bill, without conditions, without restrictions and without pork."
Bush's threat to veto the House bill might be seen as either safe or empty, because the final compromise that emerges from the House and Senate will be different from the measure passed by Pelosi's majority. But the president's uncompromising language and his effective imposition of an April 15 deadline for the funding bill -- after that date, he said, "our men and women in uniform will face significant disruptions" -- may solidify Democratic ranks without rallying new Republican support.
To the extent that there has been movement in the Senate, the indications are that support for Bush's policy has slipped. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) suggested yesterday that a bill containing a withdrawal provision could eventually reach the president's desk and require a veto. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) has often voted with Bush but now favors Senate language that includes calls for withdrawal and benchmarks for judging success.
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a longtime Bush critic, issued one of his strongest condemnations of the war over the weekend. "We essentially are ruining our National Guard. We are destroying our Army. We're destroying our Marine Corps," he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos. "We can't sustain this. . . . I will not accept the status quo."
With most counts showing Senate Democrats needing only one more vote to approve the call for troop withdrawals next year, antiwar pressures are growing on Sens. John Sununu (R-N.H.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Norm Coleman (R-Minn.). All face reelection next year, as does Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), who is already seen as leaning toward the withdrawal plan.
Bush might still win this Senate vote and a reprieve for his war policy. But the president's refusal to acknowledge that the country has fundamentally changed its mind on the war makes it impossible for him to work with Congress on a sensible approach to a withdrawal that will happen some day -- with or without a constitutional showdown.