The first step is completed. Both the House and Senate held votes showing a bipartisan majority opposes an escalation of the war in Iraq.
(The House passed a resolution. Senate Republicans technically filibustered a resolution, but with 56 Senators supporting it, the point was still made.)
The question now is: what is Congress’ next step?
On the Sunday shows yesterday, two different tracks were discussed.
On the House side, Rep. John Murtha is in charge of drafting the next supplemental funding bill for wars in Iraq and Afganistan.
And he plans to put conditions on that funding, such as:
- No troops to Iraq without proper training and equipment
- No protracted tours of duty in Iraq
- Closing down Gitmo
- Ban on permanent bases in Iraq
The sad reality is: there aren’t enough available trained soldiers around to surge with.
So that may force war backers to insist Congress allow Bush send poorly trained and equipped soldiers into harm’s way.
On the Senate side, Sen. Joe Biden talked more seriously yesterday about what he floated last month — changing the Authorization of Force that gives Bush the authority to use the military in Iraq.
On CBS’ Face The Nation, Biden said:
I’ve been working with some of my colleagues to try to convince them … to repeal and restate the president’s authority.
Make it clear that the purpose that he has troops in there is to in fact protect against al-Qaeda gaining chunks of territory, training the Iraqi forces, force protection and for our forces.
It’s not to get in the midst of a civil war.
The Murtha strategy, which would be the first exercising of Congress’ “power of the purse” to try to change course, is getting more attention.
Especially since The Politico’s slanted characterization of it as a “slow-bleed strategy” is being giddily repeated by conservatives.
White House spokesperson Tony Snow, on NBC’s Meet The Press, sought to reframe the debate around funding, in hopes of scaring folks out of backing Murtha:
…if you ask the American people, “Do you like the way things are in Iraq right now?”, the answer is, “No, we don’t. We think they ought to be better.”…
…Interestingly, if you also take a look at polls, Tim, and they ask people, “Well, do you support continued funding for the forces?”, 67 percent say yes.
They say, “do you, do you oppose efforts to take away funding for the additional 21,000?”, 60 percent say, “No, we don’t support that.”
So it’s an interesting debate in the country … the president understands that war’s tough, they’re unpopular. … But the cost of leaving before we’ve succeeded is too high for this president or any president to risk.
Then asked about the likely Murtha bill — which puts conditions on funds, but does not cut off funds — Snow tried to pivot:
… I think it’s been referred to by some as a slow bleed … The president believes that what you need to do if you support the troops, is to provide the reinforcement for the people who are already on the ground to get the job done and finish the job.
So, does Snow have the goods to beat back Murtha?
Snow was pointing to the recent AP-Ipsos that showed strong opposition to “cutting all funding for the Iraq war” and “cutting funding for the additional troops.”
But it also showed strong opposition to “sending more troops to Iraq” and support for “a time-table for withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of next year.”
There’s also a Pew poll this month, showing 53% support for bringing “troops home as soon as possible.”
To read between the lines, there’s an unsurprising concern for “cutting funding,” if that means soldiers get stuck out in the field without supplies.
Which of course, would never happen. Any banning of money for war would be linked to troop redeployments out of harm’s way.
But again, that’s not even Murtha approach anyway.
Yet Republicans have begin painting Murtha with that brush.
That’s the nub of the debate, and to beat back Snow’s frame, Dems will have to show their bill won’t leave a single soldier high and dry.
It would appear that with Murtha still hammering out details, and Pelosi lining up ducks, House Dems aren’t quite ready to launch a full-blown campaign to explain and rally support for the bill.
And the two Dem Senators on the shows yesterday — Jack Reed on MTP and Carl Levin on Fox News Sunday avoided saying anything directly about Murtha when asked — a sign that there’s no House-Senate coordination.
(In fact, GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel, on MTP, did a better job of boosting Murtha.)
But the game is on, so they better get on it.
Reed and Levin, however, did sound eager about the Biden approach of revamping the force authorization.
Is one approach better than other?
Not necessarily, and they are not mutually exclusive.
They can easily complement each other, and so, House and Senate leaders should be coordinating their messages.
And those messages need to be framed carefully.
Both the Murtha and Biden approaches need to convey a fundamental change in foreign policy — away from permanent bases and unilateral imposition, towards multilateral diplomacy to resolve sectarian differences and renewed focus on actual terrorism.
That is the fundamental objective. To win the foreign policy debate and build a mandate for a real change in course.
There should be no expectation Bush will allow Congress to change his long-held plans in the short-run.
Bush will ignore Congress — either by veto, signing statement or creative interpretation of the law.
But if the public recognizes that the Congressional majority has a clear plan, and it’s snubbed by Bush, it will be quite evident that a change in the Oval Office is needed to reverse the chaos in the Gulf Region.