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NYRB: The War in Washington

Author: Elizabeth Drew
May 10, 2007

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The War in Washington

By Elizabeth Drew

On no other issue has the Democratic takeover of Congress in January—presenting President Bush with an opposition Congress for the first time in his presidency—been more dramatic than on the Iraq war. Under the Republicans, Congress undoubtedly would not have taken the steps it has toward forcing a drawdown of US forces from Iraq—which a majority of members in both parties favor, no matter what they say publicly. Though both the House and the Senate took important steps in late March toward pressing the President to wind down the war, politicians in both parties are struggling to catch up with both the public's increasingly negative opinion of the war and the facts about what's actually happening in Iraq.

The controversy over the war has led to more agonizing on the part of members of Congress than any other issue in memory. Now that the war has evolved into something far different from what Congress authorized in 2002, the issue of how to wind it down, and the human and financial costs of continuing it, present difficult political problems for each party. Those with safe seats need not worry for themselves, but all members of Congress face another battle for control of both houses, as well as the forthcoming presidential election; so they are concerned about the future of their parties as well as their own seats. The Republicans are just beginning to overcome their shell shock at losing their majority in 2006, and many are pessimistic about 2008.

Following the outcome of last year's election, a clash between Bush and the Democratic Congress over the war— and over other issues as well—was inevitable. Members of Congress—in both parties—have also begun to act on their resentment at the White House for treating them throughout Bush's presidency largely as a nuisance that can be ignored. The administration's firing of eight US attorneys (in some instances apparently to affect the cases they were handling) and its misleading and inept handling of the issue served to further drain the remaining enthusiasm of already unhappy Republicans for supporting the President's policies in general, and particularly for defending the administration's blunders. That these events coincided with Congress's consideration of the White House's request for supplemental funding for the war was not helpful to the President.


While the Democratic-led Congress has been conducting oversight hearings —for the first time in Bush's presidency —intended to scrutinize the executive branch and has also passed a number of bills, nothing has consumed it remotely as much as the war. Shortly after the November election, the Democratic leaders of the Senate and the House decided to push for a series of votes on the war in the next Congress. The idea was to respond to the electorate and also to put the Republicans on the defensive—especially the moderates —so that eventually enough of them would vote with the Democrats to get a majority to force a change in Bush's Iraq policy. The complication for the Democrats is that they want to bring an end to the war in Iraq without being held responsible for how it ends. A key Democratic strategist told me, "We don't want to own this war. It's Bush's war, and we want him to keep owning it."

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