Jan. 16 – With the Pentagon already implementing President Bush's broadly opposed plan to expand the US fighting force in Iraq, critics are calling on Congress to stop the escalation. But Democratic lawmakers are divided on whether to wield their "power of the purse" and curb or cut the war budget, leaving some to downplay Congress's ability to take concrete action.
A few lawmakers are pushing legislation that would limit military spending on Iraq or explicitly narrow the president's leeway to deploy more troops.
Representative John Murtha (D–Pennsylvania), a member of the House Appropriations Committee who voted to authorize the Iraq war in 2002, said he plans to try placing restrictions on military expansion in upcoming "emergency" military-funding bills. Federal allocations related to the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have already exceeded $500 billion.
Senator Ted Kennedy (D–Massachusetts), who voted against the authorization, has already introduced legislation that would bar the president from spending money to escalate troop levels "unless and until Congress approves the president's plan."
Neither Kennedy's nor Murtha's proposal would alter funding for the existing deployment in Iraq. But even such efforts to prevent the occupation from intensifying have met resistance within the Democratic Party and raised public doubts about their commitment to ending the war.
Various political snags await the proposed strictures.
The most-direct threat is a veto from the White House, which has already indicated that it has no plans to heed congressional dissent. To override a presidential objection, the House and Senate would each need to muster a two-thirds majority.
Nothing is stopping the president from jumping ahead of Congress and boost the Iraq force using funds previously allocated for the war, said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow with the liberal think tank Center for American Progress and senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information.
"By the time you vote on the money bill," Korb told The NewStanard, "a lot of the troops will already be there."
The Bush administration says Congress does not have the power to steer the conduct of military operations. In an interview on Fox News Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney said of the president, "He's the guy who's got to decide how to use the force and where to deploy the force." He added that while Congress serves as the military's financer, "you also cannot run a war by committee."
But according to some policy experts critical of the war, within the constitutional separation of powers, Congress has both the authority and a responsibility to redirect national resources away from an unpopular war.
Anthony Arend, director of the Institute for International Law and Politics at Georgetown University, argued that Congress may lack the power to "micromanage an ongoing conflict" with detailed mandates for deploying forces. However, Arend told TNS, lawmakers could rein in war spending so that the White House "would have no choice but to reduce troops in accordance with that funding reduction."
Taking a historical view of congressional powers in practice, a recent policy paper by the Center for American Progress lists ways lawmakers have previously used budgetary, legislative and political leverage to cap troop levels, influence the conditions and timing of missions, and bar funds for forces either before or after they are deployed.
For instance, toward the end of the Vietnam War, Congress cut funding for military efforts in Southeast Asia. Though outcry against the war had already engulfed the country by then, the budget restrictions solidified the opposition and, combined with public pressure, helped compel the executive branch to withdraw US forces.
Winslow Wheeler with the policy-analysis group Center for Defense Information, who previously worked as a congressional staffer and researcher with the Government Accountability Office, said the US Constitution gives Congress "complete, utter control over how every single penny of appropriations is spent." But he added that so far, Congress has only deepened the Iraq conflict by handing the president ample war funds with minimal strings attached.
Some analysts opposed to the war say that although constitutional issues and White House resistance may pose some difficulty, much of the Democrats' reluctance to seize the Iraq war's purse strings stems from political timidity.
Critics suspect lawmakers are hesitant to cut military funding because they fear giving the impression that they are "abandoning" American troops. In recent statements to the press, several Democrats in Congress have emphasized that they will steer clear of withholding funds for forces in the field.
Jim Manley, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–Nevada), told TNS that while the Senator would scrutinize the upcoming funding requests, Reid "intends to make sure that the troops get everything they need."
For now, Manley said that Reid, who initially supported the war, is promoting a conciliatory approach: a non-binding resolution criticizing Bush's troop increase, aimed at winning Republican backing to show bipartisan opposition. That resolution, Reid's office says, is still being finalized and has not been publicly released.
But retired Lieutenant Colonel Piers Wood, who heads the think tank Military Insights, said de-escalating the war would not necessarily put the troops at further risk. By enacting surgical budget cuts, he said, Congress "could constrain offensive operations" but maintain funds to cover troops' basic needs.
He nonetheless predicted, "Congress, of course, being cowards, are going to hold off on cutting funds in any obvious or dramatic way… because they think they might be blamed [for defunding military forces] and not reelected."
Representative José Serrano (D–New York), who voted against the war authorization and has called for an immediate pullout from Iraq, said that while he understands his colleagues' concerns on the issue of neglecting the troops, he sees a straightforward way to keep soldiers safe.
"My plan not to jeopardize the troops is to take them out immediately," Serrano told TNS.
According to analysts interviewed by for this story, Congress could express definitive opposition to the occupation by repealing its original authorization for the Iraq war. Representative Sam Farr, for example, recently introduced a bill to rescind the war resolution, which he voted against in 2002.
The initiative would pit congressional authority in wartime squarely against executive control of the military. Some political observers say a standoff over withdrawal might trigger a governmental clash and national debate over the war's legality, possibly testing the scope of executive power under the Constitution and the War Powers Act that emerged from the Vietnam Era.
Erik Leaver, a fellow with the Peace and Security Program at the progressive think tank Institute for Policy Studies, said that beyond drawing down funds and limiting troop levels, a repeal of the war resolution would be the strongest political stance Congress could take. But overall, he added, lawmakers are unlikely to make such a move yet, because there is not "a common viewpoint in Congress that the war, in any form, isn't worth fighting."
Michael Ratner, president of the human-rights litigation group Center for Constitutional Rights, said "weak-kneed" lawmakers are ducking behind purported concerns for US troops – opting to criticize the war from the sidelines rather than antagonizing the administration through legislative action.
He speculated that Congress might hedge its bets on letting the war drag on, waiting for the White House to cave to public opposition and withdraw on its own. But the price of that political wager, he said, would be American and Iraqi lives.
"It's a calculus that's based on the bodies of human beings," he said, "which is pretty sad."