Over the next few weeks, the congressional Democratic majorities must decide how scared they still are of George W. Bush and his right-wing attack machine. Or put differently, can a weakened President still intimidate Democrats by questioning their patriotism or doubting their support for the troops?

Bush has thrown down the gauntlet with his demand for another $105 billion in war funding without “strings” attached. He also has warned that he would veto any measure that seeks to limit his discretion over how to fight the war in Iraq.

Two to five years ago, the Democrats – then in the minority – would have been quaking in fear about crossing Bush, the self-described “war president.” They knew to expect a barrage of insults from Washington’s influential right-wing and neoconservative pundits and a hefty GOP investment in 30-second attack ads in the next campaign.

But now with most Americans critical of Bush’s conduct of the war and after disclosures about neglectful treatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed and other medical centers, the political calculus has changed. Indeed, it’s possible that Democrats would face more heat from voters by giving Bush another blank check.

Those two alternatives – “strings attached” or “blank check” – are likely to become the stark legislative choices in the weeks ahead since the House Democratic leadership has decided to put forward a compromise plan to start a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

The bill roughly follows the blueprint drafted by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group in late 2006, gradually pulling U.S. troops out of combat and focusing mostly on training Iraqis. The pace of withdrawal would speed up or slow down depending on whether the Iraqi government meets benchmarks already laid out by President Bush, but whatever the case, the direct U.S. combat role would end by August 2008.

Democratic leaders have been struggling to line up the 218 votes that would secure the bill’s House passage. The challenge has been to assuage anti-war Democrats who opposed the Iraq invasion from the start and don’t want to approve any money for it at all, and so-called “blue dog” or conservative Democrats who come from districts that supported Bush in 2004 and who fear a voter backlash if they buck the President.

The Senate Democrats face an even bigger challenge because their one-seat majority depends on Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, a staunch Iraq War supporter. Even if the Democrats can win over enough Republicans to reach a majority, Senate GOP leaders could block the bill with a filibuster.

If the Republicans forgo a filibuster and the Democrats can muster majorities in the House and Senate, Bush still has vowed to veto the legislation, knowing the Democrats have no realistic chance of getting two-thirds super-majorities in both chambers that would be needed to override a presidential veto.

Affirmative Vote

But a successful Bush veto wouldn’t resolve the impasse. Unlike the earlier non-binding resolution that objected to Bush’s troop “surge,” some form of affirmative congressional action is needed to appropriate the $105 billion that Bush wants.

So, after blocking the strings-attached version, Republican leaders would press for a straight up-or-down vote on the money sans strings. They would count on a solid bloc of GOP votes and enough centrist or conservative Democrats to pass it.

If that were to succeed, Bush would celebrate another Iraq War political victory and the anti-war “base” of the Democratic Party would lash out at the Democrats who joined with Bush and the Republicans.

The predicament could be especially tricky for Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York who voted for the Iraq War authorization in 2002 and has resisted calls both for admitting a “mistake” and for setting a “timetable” for withdrawal. Only in the last few days has Clinton indicated she would support a Democratic plan with a withdrawal timeline.

Sen. Clinton has been reluctant to put constraints on the power of the Commander in Chief in part because of her experiences as First Lady during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Some Democrats with military backgrounds share some of the same concerns.

But Bush’s bungling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and his refusal to accept advice from his family’s long-time counselor James Baker – have convinced many members of Congress that they have no choice but to rein in this headstrong President or risk further damage to the national security.

The changed political dynamic for both Democrats and Republicans is that voters might be angrier at members of Congress who continue giving Bush free rein than at those who yank back hard to get control of a runaway President.

Republicans have campaign worries, too, since 21 of their senators are up for reelection compared to only 12 Democrats. So, the continuation of an unpopular war could push the GOP deeper into minority status. They risk being labeled “the party of George W. Bush,” much as they once were known as "the party of Herbert Hoover."

It now appears that the fear of Bush’s retaliation, which wasn't much of a factor in 2006, looks increasingly like a myth in 2008, too.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

To comment at Consortiumblog, click here. To comment to us by e-mail, click here. To donate so we can continue reporting and publishing stories like the one you just read, click here.

Back to Home Page