WASHINGTON — As the Senate begins a debate this week on whether to oppose President Bush's "new way forward" in Iraq, many lawmakers are balancing what they see as competing constitutional responsibilities – and stepped up pressure from voters long weary of a war that most Americans no longer think can be won.
A first step is the debate over a nonbinding resolution to oppose the escalation of the war in Iraq. But should that vote succeed, Demo-crats expect to move next to curb defense funding.
"We are convinced there must be a political solution to the problems in Iraq," said a Congressional delegation led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a statement after a trip to Iraq last week.
In the run-up to this week's debate, newly empowered Democrats have been conducting daily hearings on the war in both houses of Congress, aimed especially at clarifying Congress's role vis-à-vis a wartime president.
At issue is how to balance powers inherent in two parts of the Constitution: Article 1, which gives the power to declare and fund wars to the Congress, and Article 2, which designates the president as commander in chief.
When the Founding Fathers began working on the outlines of a new nation, a key element of their research was how absolute monarchs waged war – which is to say, badly.
"That's one reason why they developed the idea of balance of powers," says Louis Fisher of the Library of Congress, who will testify before a Senate panel Tuesday on Congress's "Constitutional Power to End a War."
On the House side, Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania, who chairs the Defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, has been conducting closed hearings on defense readiness. Congress could use that issue to block war funding and force changes in troop deployments, all in the interest of supporting the troops, Representative Murtha says.
House Republicans propose, instead, requiring the Bush administration to report to Congress every 30 days on progress in meeting "strategic benchmarks carefully tailored to the president's new strategy," including measuring the Iraqi government's cooperation on counterterrorism efforts.
While only 24 percent of likely voters nationwide approve of Mr. Bush's handling of the war, slightly more voters say it has been worth the loss of American lives, according to a Zogby poll released Friday. "It's now clearly a Republican war," says pollster John Zogby, noting that 59 percent of Republicans agree that the war has been worth the loss of life, compared with 20 percent of Democrats and 33 percent of independents.
"But Democrats also have this internal debate over just how far they can go. They are still afraid of being perceived by the American people as being antitroops or antipatriotic," he adds. A strong showing from antiwar voters – expressed in e-mails, phone calls, or turnout at protests – "could provide an extra prod for Democrats to go that step further," Mr. Zogby adds.
In response, some defense analysts say that polling data can be misleading. "Because only 30 percent say they still support the war doesn't mean that 70 percent are prepared to pack up and leave, no matter what happens to the region as a result," says Michael O'Hanlon at the Brookings Institution.
"It's the position of a third to half the Congress that we can still salvage something in Iraq," says Mr. O'Hanlon, noting that most of the Democratic leadership is not in that camp. "We haven't had a sophisticated development of Plan B in Iraq. Congress is in a good position to flesh out some options."
For their part, antiwar protesters in Washington are adding intensity to the debate.
Few members of Congress were in town Saturday as tens of thousands rallied on the Mall near the Capitol, but activists say lawmakers can expect 1 million e-mails and phone calls this week and intense scrutiny of member votes on the war on new blog sites.
"Symbolic actions are not enough. Congress has to stop the president. Our Founders gave the Congress Article 1. Our message was: You got elected with a mandate to get us out of Iraq. Figure it out," says Tom Matzzie, Washington director of MoveOn.org Political Action.
In the next few days, antiwar protesters are launching television ads in three states targeting Republican Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana, John Warner of Virginia, and Judd Gregg and John Sununu of New Hampshire. MoveOn.org is gearing up to raise $7 million to $9 million to influence the war debate, says Mr. Matzzie.
Others in the antiwar movement agree with his assessment.
"The president is irrelevant at this point. We are not going to change his mind. Thank goodness we have a Congress that is a co-equal branch of government," says Tom Andrews, national director of Win Without War and a former Democratic representative from Maine.
"We're going to use the Internet to make it absolutely clear who is doing what. Members of Congress need to know that we have their back when they're attacked, and if they are against us, they will feel the heat."