Two branches

February 21, 2007

What can Congress do about the war?

Having condemned President Bush's troop "surge," the House of Representatives may move toward a plan promoted by Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania that would prevent the administration from sending units to Iraq unless they are properly equipped and trained. That measure is really not about equipping and training - it's about keeping troops out of the war.

The Senate, having failed to muster the votes to debate a resolution on the escalation, may now take up a reconsideration of the original 2002 resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq. Because none of the conditions cited in that resolution now pertain, proponents say it's an appropriate time to rein in the administration. Such a move would have tremendous political impact - but the president would be unlikely to feel any obligation to obey congressional restraints.

The Constitution says the president is the commander in chief. His allies argue that Congress, having allowed the nation to go to war, does not have the right to tell the president how to fight that war, or even whom to fight. It can cut off funds to stop the war, according to this perspective, but that's its only power. This is not an altogether preposterous argument, but it's an expedient one, because the war's supporters know that their opponents in Congress are reluctant simply to cut off the money - and take the blame for the bloody scenes that would be sure to follow.

Of course, almost any measure that goes through Congress can be defined as budgetary, but Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, wants to move away from the question of financing the war and take up its conduct instead. If Congress were to do that, the president's likely response would be to keep vetoing bills until public - that is, political - pressure becomes so great that one of his vetoes is overridden or he bows to the will of the majority.

Within the administration, there are those who worry that the White House and Congress are heading toward a dangerous constitutional crack-up. (Naturally, their hope is that Congress backs off.) But if opponents of the president's direction of the war succeed in carefully building a solid and ever-larger base of public opinion on their side, they must eventually prevail. A constitutional crisis over the appropriate war powers of Congress can be averted by sound political spadework.

Bills that will put the administration on the spot are not a bad way to start. Make the president's allies vote against proper equipment and training. Make them reaffirm their support for a resolution that justifies the war on the basis of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. The important thing then is to keep the pressure up - and keep it building.

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