Democrats are calling the battle over funding the war in Iraq and its aftermath "the most consequential national security debate in a generation."
They may be right. Already, skirmishes over President Bush's $87 billion supplemental spending request are breaking out on everything from the rationale for use of American power in the world to the responsibility of US taxpayers to pay for water, power, and even zip codes in Iraq.
Nor is this debate defined simply along partisan lines.
Republicans - who have allowed little daylight between themselves and their president on national security issues - are now breaking ranks over who should pay for Iraqi reconstruction. A critical mass of Republicans in both the House and Senate has balked at giving the $20.3 billion that the president is requesting for this purpose as grants.
"I want to lessen the impact on the American taxpayer," says Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, one of eight GOP senators who propose converting some $10 billion of Iraqi reconstruction funds to loans or loan guarantees.
What is prompting defections is the steady erosion of President Bush's case for the war - and the realities of grappling with a budget deficit approaching half-a-trillion dollars in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
No single gap in President Bush's case for war in Iraq has decisively weakened his presidency: Not the failure to find caches of weapons of mass destruction, the lowball estimates of postwar threats, or the high-ball estimates of Iraq's capacity to quickly pay for its own recovery with oil.
But the accumulation of such issues is rapidly changing the mood on Capitol Hill toward the president's request for $87 billion to complete the job - especially if miscues to lawmakers and the public prove to be deliberate.
A crucial test comes this week as the House takes the administration's supplemental spending request for Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite mounting controversy over how troops came to be in Iraq, there is still no doubt that Congress will vote the $65.6 billion the president is requesting to support military operations. Even opponents of the war back American troops in the field - sometimes favoring even more than the Pentagon wants.
However, pros-pects for securing the full $20.4 billion as a grant are weakening, especially as members work their way more deeply into the minutiae of the Iraqi reconstruction request. Members of Congress are also drawing conclusions from their own visits to Iraq, as well as recent briefings with top US officials, such as Paul Bremer, the US civil administrator of Iraq, and David Kay, who is leading the US effort to find banned weaons.
Democrats are also looking for ways to lower the impact on American taxpayers by highlighting what they say are lavish and unnecessary expenditures in the $20.4 request, which they call a "padded bill" or, at least, a blank check. "Do we really need to spend $9 million for zip codes in Iraq?" says Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, who is proposing that the Senate vote only half of the president's reconstruction request when senators return from recess next week.
On the House side, Democrats are preparing to argue that even at $87 billion, the estimates of the cost of rebuilding Iraq are still low. "There is no question in my mind they are underestimating the cost of reconstruction and the military," says Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, who is ranking member of the House appropriations committee.
"I want to know how much is going to the Iraqi people and how much to Halliburton and Bechtel [Corporation]," says Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House energy and commerce committee - a reference to controversial no-bid contracts US firms with close ties to the Bush administration.
Meanwhile, House Republicans are falling out over whether to back the Bush demand that all reconstruction funding be in the form of a grant. Despite strong pressure from the White House, many Republicans are leaning toward the loan option.
"The president's poll numbers are down, the casualty rate [in Iraq] is up, and Republicans are nervous," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. The loan option "helps put some distance between them and the administration."