Backed by new polls showing a wary public, Democrats are launching a multifront battle over President Bush's $87 billion request for troop support and reconstruction funding in Iraq.
No one doubts that the package will ultimately pass. Even Democrats who once opposed the war now say that American troops deserve full support from Congress - in some cases even more than the White House wants.
But the questioning before the vote gives Democrats their best platform to probe the Bush team on everything from the quality of its postwar planning to the basic fairness of the tax system that pays for it.
"This is an enormous issue for Demo-crats, both in the Congress and on the campaign trail," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.
Dr. Sabato says: "Most Americans now think the war wasn't worth it. They think the deaths were pointless. This is a stunning turnaround, and it's an accumulation of all this information that the public has gathered - that there were not weapons of mass destruction [in Iraq], that we're getting bogged down in a guerrilla war, plus the $87 billion we can't afford, that has turned a plurality against the war."
Democrats aim to use the debate over how to pay for that war to focus a bright light on all these concerns, as well as on the competence of the Bush administration to deal with them. Even before the president sent details of his proposal to Congress on Wednesday, members were floating ideas on how to respond to it. With many members of Congress rushing to airports in advance of hurricane Isabel, it was not clear which approach enjoyed the most support.
One of the first targets for Democrats will be the Bush tax cuts. This week, Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware - one of the strongest backers of war in Iraq - proposed covering the $87 billion by scaling back tax cuts for the top 1 percent of American taxpayers. That would include taxpayers earning more than $360,000 a year.
"I am hopeful by the end of this appropriations process we will have funds to pay for it with the tax cut," he says, citing a recent poll that 51 percent of Americans back repealing the tax cut to pay for the war.
Senator Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, says he has "vast support" within the Democratic caucus for this proposal. "The president has a great opportunity to not pass this burden along to our children," he adds.
Still, any bid to pay for the war by rolling back the tax cut faces a certain presidential veto, something Demo-crats concede they do not have the votes to override.
Even Republicans who opposed the tax cuts are reluctant to see them phased out before their time.
"It's not good public policy to pull the plug on tax cuts at this time," says Sen. George Voinovich (R) of Ohio, who fought against the most recent $350 billion Bush tax cut. "As time comes up for the continuation of the tax cuts, that's the time to raise these questions."
The lone exception, Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R) of Rhode Island, supports linking the $87 billion supplemental request to a rollback of the tax cuts that haven't been implemented. But he stops short of saying he would vote against the request:
"That would be a hard question," he says.
Democrats are also just beginning to develop a line of attack on whether the president is providing enough support for American troops in Iraq.
Even Democrats who opposed the war, including House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, now say that more must be spent on the protection of forces in the field. House Democrats say the Army has not provided enough body armor for soldiers in Iraq and that armored troop carriers are not sufficiently protected.
"There is the technology to jam most of the improvised devices that are exploding [and killing] our troops. They should be on every [US] vehicle," says Rep. Gene Taylor (D) of Mississippi, who has just returned from a visit to Iraq. "There is no reason for one American soldier to die."
"There is no question that Democrats in the Congress will provide US troops with what they need. Our problem is not with them," says Ms. Pelosi. The issue is whether the Bush administration is "giving our men and women what they need." Democrats are calling for full hearings on this issue before the supplemental request is voted.
Democrats also aim to use debate on the money targeted for reconstruction in Iraq - part of the $87 billion request - to make the case for more spending on domestic priorities in the US.
"The tradeoffs are real," says Rep. George Miller (D) of California, ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "The president talks about making sacrifices for Iraq, but so far the people paying the sacrifice - in addition to the troops in the field - are poor children in schools."
It's an argument expected to appeal to Republicans, as well. "I'd like to see a public-works project in our country," says Senator Voinovich, after a closed briefing with administration officials on the $87 billion request. "It's hard to say we don't have the money for sewers, roads, and schools here, but we are able to put money over there."
"Anytime a figure as high as $87 billion is requested, members of Congress are going to look in it and see a leaky dam in my district and a nuclear facility that needs fences," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at the Rutgers University.
The $87 billion request includes $66 billion for military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, and $21.4 billion for reconstruction.