After years of facing relatively few obstacles to his Iraq policies from the legislative branch, President George W. Bush now confronts dual resolutions (WashPost) from both chambers of Congress demanding an end to combat operations there sometime next year. The Senate on Thursday voted 51-47 (USA Today) to set a goal of March 31, 2008 for ending U.S. combat operations in Iraq. That measure is still not as strong as the previous week’s House bill imposing deadlines for troop withdrawals, which the Christian Science Monitor called “one of the toughest antiwar measures ever passed during ongoing combat.” The president has vowed to veto either legislation. But it definitively ends a period that began with a vote in 2002 to grant Bush broad warmaking powers during which Congress has deferred to the executive.
The president and his mostly Republican supporters have argued the “surge” of over twenty thousand new U.S. troops into the country has not had time to prove itself, with only half of the forces deployed. Bush says the consequences of legislation with a timetable for pullout would be disastrous. “Our enemies in Iraq would simply have to mark their calendars,” he said. An update from Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service says Baghdad’s death rate is down (PDF), but bombings in “belts” around the capital and area provinces like Diyalah are up. The latest large-scale attack, in Tal Afar, prompted vicious Shiite reprisals (Times Online) against Sunnis in a town that Bush once held up as a model of the progress made in stabilizing Iraq.
Democrats calling for a troop withdrawal have been propelled in part by consistently negative public-opinion polling on the war. That includes a Pew poll this week indicating a majority of Americans want their representatives in Congress to support the House measure calling for a withdrawal of forces by August 2008. Now, the advancing legislation in Congress will fuel a new debate over whether it has finally owned up to its obligations (WashTimes) or is vastly overreaching itself (USA Today). Los Angeles Times columnist Ronald Brownstein writes neither Congress nor the president can impose their terms on the other, but Bush must reach out to Democratic congressional leaders to restore public support for the course of the war. CFR Senior Fellow Peter Beinert argues in TIME that the Democrats are right, in the policy sense and politically, to force this debate. Tactically, both the White House and leading Democrats are mindful of the 1995 showdown between President Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress, in which the president shifted blame for a budget impasse (WSJ) on Republicans.
The Center for American Progress offers examples of congressional checks on presidential wartime powers dating to the Vietnam War. Neil Kinkopf, an associate law professor at Georgia State University, writes that the Iraq war authorization was broad enough to cover President Bush’s surge plan but since the war has been conducted under false premises, congressional approval is needed for an escalation. On the other hand, the Department of Justice asserted in a memo shortly after 9/11 that the constitution envisioned the commander-in-chief with greater powers. “The Framers expected that the process for warmaking would be far more flexible, and capable of quicker, more decisive action, than the legislative process,” the memo said. John Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute predicts Bush will prevail in a veto fight and the Democrats are likely to lose arguments that Bush was obstructing funding for the troops. “The course of the war in Iraq,” Fortier writes, “will be determined more by the election results (The Hill) in November of 2008 than by the 2007 supplemental vote.”