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Dems Shy Away from Iraq Money Fight

By Jason Leopold
April 9, 2008

Despite posing some tougher-than-usual questions at hearings on George W. Bush’s open-ended Iraq War strategy, congressional Democrats have signaled they will give the President $100 billion more in war spending without insisting on timetables for bringing U.S. troops home.

Democratic leaders, who vowed in 2006 and 2007 to deny Bush any more “blank checks” for the war, now concede that a new supplemental war appropriation bill will almost surely pass without any meaningful constraints on Bush’s war policies.

Rather than challenge Bush over that funding, Democratic leaders fired off a letter asking Bush to reconsider his approach.

“The current Iraq strategy has no discernible end in sight and requires the United States to spend additional hundreds of billions of dollars despite urgent national needs in education, health care, and infrastructure improvement, and when high oil prices have provided the Iraqi government with billions in additional revenue that could pay for their own redevelopment and security," says the letter, signed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, and Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois.

“This strategy is neither sustainable nor in our broader national security or economic interest,” the Democratic leaders said. “We are deeply concerned that you and the congressional Republican leadership are intent on staying the current course throughout your administration and then handing the Iraq war off to future presidents.”

Not surprisingly, Bush did not respond to the letter. However, his two top officials in Iraq – Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker – made clear in testimony to the House and Senate this week that Bush has no intention of changing course.

Petraeus said he would recommend to Bush that the post-surge troop drawdown stop with about 140,000 U.S. soldiers still in Iraq. That means the American troop levels will be about 8,000 higher than the 132,000 U.S. troops in Iraq in early 2007 when the “surge” began.

Both Bush and congressional Democrats appear to be pushing the Iraq War issue off until after the November elections. While Bush hopes Sen. John McCain will win the presidency and keep the war going, Democrats are counting on winning larger majorities in the House and Senate and putting a Democrat in the White House who then will move to end the war.

'Power of the Purse'

Still, if Democratic lawmakers were serious about changing the direction of U.S. military operations in Iraq now, they have several legislative options at their disposal, according to a recent 52-page report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the investigative arm of Congress.

The report, “Congressional Authority to Limit U.S. Military Operations in Iraq,” says that “Congress’s ability to deny funds for the continuation of military hostilities is not contingent upon the enactment of a positive law, though such a denial may take the form of a positive enactment.”

In other words, Congress can compel an end to a conflict simply by refusing to appropriate money for it. That approach would circumvent the threat of a presidential veto, which requires two-thirds majorities to override.

“Although the President has the power to veto legislative proposals, he cannot compel Congress to pass legislation, including bills to appropriate funds necessary for the continuation of a military conflict,” the report says.

The report notes that “a simple majority of a single House could prevent the appropriation of funds necessary for the continuation of a military conflict,” but it suggests that legislation might be needed to prevent the President from shifting funds from other operations.

(Theoretically, Bush’s Iraq War funding could even be stopped by a Democratic filibuster in the Senate, which would require only 41 of the 100 senators to block a new appropriations bill.)

However, with the presidential campaign in full swing and with bitter memories of “soft on national security” taunts, Democratic leaders are unwilling to confront Bush on war funding.

Still, the CRS report is a reminder that Congress has the authority to contest Bush’s assertions that his commander-in-chief powers allow him to do almost whatever he wants when it comes to fighting wars.

“There has been some suggestion in the past that the President’s responsibility to provide for troops in the field justifies further deployments without prior authorization from Congress, with some arguing that the President has an independent implied spending power to carry out these responsibilities,” says the CRS report.

“These arguments do not easily square with Congress’s established prerogative to limit the scope of wars through its war powers, and do not conform with Congress’s absolute authority to appropriate funds.”

The CRS report, issued last Feb. 28, continues: “At least two arguments support the constitutionality of Congress’s authority to limit the President’s ability to increase or maintain troop levels in Iraq.

“First, Congress’s constitutional power over the nation’s armed forces provides ample authority to legislate with respect to how they may be employed. Secondly, Congress has virtually plenary constitutional power over appropriations.

“Article I provides that ‘No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.’ It is well established, as a consequence of these provisions, that ‘no money can be paid out of the Treasury unless it has been appropriated by an act of Congress’ and that Congress can specify the terms and conditions under which an appropriation may be used.”

In past wars, Congress has succeeded in forcing an administration to change its military strategy by using the “power of the purse,” the CRS report says.

“In cases of significant differences with the President over foreign policy, especially deployments of U.S. military forces abroad, Congress has generally found that use of its constitutionally-based ‘power of the purse’ to be the most effective way to compel a President to take actions regarding use of U.S. military force overseas that he otherwise might not agree to."

CRS notes that historically Congress has imposed limits on presidential war-making powers through legislative constraints:

"Two well-known proposals – the McGovern-Hatfield amendment and the Cooper-Church amendments – were also part of this jockeying between the administration and Congress.

“The first prohibited expenditure of previously appropriated funds after a specified date ‘in or over Indochina,’ except for the purpose of withdrawing troops or for protection of U.S. troops during the withdrawal, while the second prohibited the expenditure of any funds after July 1, 1970, to retain troops in Cambodia unless specifically authorized by law …

“Overall, funding restrictions have generally proven more effective than the War Powers Act, which has been challenged by the Executive Branch on constitutional grounds."

Timid Democrats

But key Democrats, such as Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have ruled out an Iraq War showdown with Bush if it involves a possible cutoff of war funding.

Levin has insisted that the only acceptable course for Congress ending the war is through legislation that sets a timetable for troop withdrawals. However, that approach can be blocked by a Republican filibuster or Bush can veto the bill, as happened in 2007.

Once a timetable bill is stopped by a filibuster or vetoed (with the Democrats lacking the votes for an override), the Levin strategy leaves no alternative but to surrender and give Bush the war funding he demands without strings. That was the end result of legislative battles in 2007.

In a conference call with reporters last Friday, Levin indicated that he expects a similar result this time.

"I expect most of our troops to still be there" until at least the end of the year, Levin said. "Until there's either a big enough majority in the Senate or a change in the president's (strategy), I don't see a significant improvement" in the situation in Iraq.

Investigative reporter Jason Leopold is the author of News Junkie, a memoir. Visit for a preview.  

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