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Battle Deferred in Congress

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
February 7, 2007

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The Democrats' failure to push forward a nonbinding resolution that would oppose President Bush’s plan to send 21,500 additional U.S. troops (WashPost) to Iraq has them accusing Republicans of trying to shelve debate on the very issue they rode to victory in last November’s midterm elections. Republicans counter that a full debate will be forthcoming but insist their alternative proposals also be submitted for consideration. At issue is the severity of the resolution’s criticism of the “surge,” as well as a proposal to forestall any future efforts to cut off funding for the war—the only binding leverage Congress retains in such matters. The result, said Joe Lieberman (IND-CT), was “a resolution of irresolution.”

The standoff reflects deep divisions on Capitol Hill over how to proceed with the Iraq War and how Congress should wield wartime powers. Nancy E. Roman, director of CFR’s Washington office, in this CFR.org Podcast says Congress holds two main levers: It can shape the public debate with its members’ statements and resolutions which serve as a “warning shot over the bow,” and it holds the power of the purse. Many experts, including CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Noah Feldman, believe Congress should stick to oversight because a body of 535 members is “very poorly suited to laying out the order of battle.” The American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka sees nothing but politics (Daily Star) beneath the sudden upsurge in congressional interest in foreign policy, while Lawrence J. Korb at the Center for American Progress says Congress is only now doing the job it should have been doing since 9/11. “Congress can and should use its power to cut off funding for troop escalation and begin the process of redeploying troops.”

The showdown over Iraq comes at the start of budget season in Washington. President Bush has requested $145 billion to fight the war on terror, $70 billion of which will go toward wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (AP). The White House says the budget aims to erase the national deficit by 2012. But National Priorities, a budget watchdog group, says the budget will bring the total war tab in Iraq up to $456 billion. Moreover, says the New York Times, the budget includes $140 billion of “products of cold war strategic thinking” that “have outlived their rationale in a world with no superpower arms race.” This Backgrounder examines the implications of the “supplemental appropriations” so far used to fund the war.

Meanwhile, in Iraq the carnage has reached new levels, according to a recently released National Intelligence Estimate, which describes a “sea change in the character of the violence.” Take last weekend’s suicide attack in a Shiite market, which killed at least 132, making it the single-deadliest attack (CSMonitor) since the war began. Or take the recent firefight involving an Islamic cult in Najaf, which left hundreds dead and further exposed the weakness of the Iraqi forces. Despite the surge in violence, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, testifying before the Senate Armed Forces Committee, predicted U.S. forces could begin pulling out of Iraq later this year (NYT).

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