Congress angles for a bigger say in Iraq plans
After deferring to Bush during war, lawmakers aim for a larger role in its aftermath.
WASHINGTON — After six months of letting the commander in chief call the shots on war in Iraq, Congress is trying to reclaim a voice in how that war is resolved - and paid for. (Note to Capitol Hill: Read "King Lear.")
In a surprising show of strength for Republican moderates, Congress last week reined in President Bush's proposed $726 billion 10-year tax cut, citing the cost of war and the risk to the economy of record budget deficits. And on the weekend, lawmakers approved $79 billion to pay for the first round of war costs - but refused the president's request for nearly absolute discretion on how to spend it.
It's a far cry from the spirit of Oct. 11, when Congress, on big bipartisan votes, voted away its right to decide when and if the US used force to topple Saddam Hussein's regime. Now it wants in on the key decisions about what happens when the war ends.
But it won't be easy. The popularity of a wartime president can be a formidable political challenge, as many Capitol Hill war dissenters have already found out. And no one wants to head into the next election with the tag of having obstructed a war effort with Americans on the ground.
"The genie, once out of the bottle, is not easily rebottled and corked," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "The president has Congress over a barrel on the war. He will come back to them with requests for supplemental funds, and they will give them to him," he says, so long as the war is going well.
But lawmakers are resisting presidential demands to let the Pentagon spend those additional funds as it sees fit. Citing constitutional responsibility to oversee government spending, lawmakers pared back Mr. Bush's request for $60 billion in unrestricted funds for the Pentagon to $9 billion - adding that Congress required five days' notice before those unrestricted funds could be spent.
In the votes leading up to agreement on an emergency funding bill to cover war costs, Capitol Hill slipped into a proxy fight between the Pentagon and the State Department over who takes the lead in managing a postwar Iraq. In early votes, both the GOP-controlled House and the Senate shifted funds from the Pentagon to the State Department. But after strong appeals from the White House - and an exceptionally vigorous lobbying effort by Vice President Cheney - lawmakers yielded.
Now, the focus shifts to how lawmakers can influence the postwar scenario. Even before bombs started falling, the Senate Foreign Relations committee - one of the few islands of genuine bipartisanship in the Congress - began hearings on postwar Iraq. Chairman Richard Lugar of Indiana and ranking member Joseph Biden of Delaware invited administration spokesmen to brief lawmakers on their plans for the future: How would new Iraqi leadership be constituted? Who would pay the bills?
Although the spokesmen said it was too early to have all the answers, the two leaders are still pushing. "The moment that the guns stop, we have equally as much responsibility as the president does, because we're going to be asked to appropriate," said Senator Biden after a hearing.
The committee has heard estimates of the cost of war ranging anywhere from $10 billion a year "as far as the eye can see" to tens of billions for five months, "and then oil revenues will cover it." Both came from "responsible officials in our government," Senator Lugar added.
But, so far, the White House appears little inclined to take 535 members of Congress into its war council. Some members privately complain that their daily briefings on the war don't tell them much more than they can pick up from public news sources, although few are directly contesting the president's authority to conduct the war.
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle came under criticism for his comments as the war began that "this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war." He has downplayed such comments since.