Battle lines drawn over Iraq policy

Democrats must decide how strongly to fight Bush

January 09, 2007|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Matthew Hay Brown | Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Matthew Hay Brown,SUN REPORTERS

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's most recent strategy for Iraq is shaping up as the start of a bruising debate with Congress over the course of the war and an early test of how far Democrats are willing to go to block Bush's plans.

Leading Democrats and some Republicans, including Marylanders, are signaling resistance or outright opposition to key elements of the president's proposal, which Bush will unveil in a nationally televised speech tomorrow night at 9. Particularly irksome to the critics is the president's expected call to send more troops to Iraq.

Despite their hints to the contrary, Democrats are unlikely to use the only significant tool at their disposal - cutting off funding - to stop the move, strategists and analysts said.

Bush is taking pains to show that he is consulting with the Democratic-led Congress, but the White House has suggested that although the president is willing to debate the "particulars" of his plan, he will be the one to decide the overall strategy.

Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, suggested that Congress' main chance to weigh in would be during debate over funding the war.

"Congress has the power of the purse," Snow said. "The president has the ability to exercise his own authority if he thinks Congress has voted the wrong way."

The White House is holding the details of Bush's proposal close, but the president is expected to call for adding about 20,000 troops; new security, political and economic benchmarks for the Iraqi government; and as much as $1 billion in reconstruction aid.

Bush will visit troops at Fort Benning, Ga., on Thursday as part of a push to sell the plan to Congress and the public.

Still, there are limits to Bush's latitude in implementing a new Iraq policy.

Bush is boxed in by leading Democrats, who have said that they won't tolerate an escalation of a war that most of them opposed, and by conservative Republicans, who are likely to question the rationale behind a so-called troop surge and whether it would be effective, said Jeffrey D. McCausland, a defense specialist who has advised the military and was an aide on the Clinton administration's National Security Council.

But Democrats are constrained by their reluctance to use their budget power to deny funding for the war at a dangerous time in Iraq, he said.

"Both sides are wandering around warily looking at each other, trying to figure out how far to take it," McCausland said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada repeated a threat, made over the weekend by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, that Democrats could use their control over federal spending to scrutinize any request to fund sending more troops to Iraq. But most analysts say Democrats are likely to stop short of blocking money for the war.

Nevertheless, Pelosi said yesterday that Congress intends to show Bush that oversight is "alive and well" on Capitol Hill.

"If the president is proposing an escalation, we want to see a justification for the mission. We want to make sure that our young people there will have what they need to succeed. And we want to know what is the reasonable prospect for success," Pelosi said.

Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist, said Congress' spending power is "a little bit like the doomsday weapon. You really can't use it unless you're willing to deal with the consequences of using it, and the Democrats certainly aren't willing to be known as the party that cut off funding for the troops."

"They are reduced to asking probing and even aggressive questions, and essentially preparing the public to be even more hostile to the idea of a troop increase than they already are," Baker said.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, plans to hold hearings this week to evaluate the situation in Iraq and Bush's plan, along with other options such as withdrawing troops or partitioning the war-torn country.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, one of the Democrats' most vocal war critics, is to speak in Washington today to denounce any troop increase in Iraq.

House Democratic Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland said he is "very skeptical" of sending more troops to Iraq

"Democrats will closely scrutinize the president's proposal and will ask tough questions," Hoyer said through a spokeswoman.

Asked whether the party would use the threat of blocking funds to influence policy, the spokeswoman, Stacey Farnen Bernards, said, "Democrats are committed to our troops. We will not play games with funding for them."

Other Democrats, who have been more outspoken in their opposition to the war say they would consider curtailing spending to tie Bush's hands.

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