If Congress decides to block the president's plan for a troop buildup in Iraq, it has all the clout it needs – at least on parchment – to trim war funding through its power of the purse. Call it the Murtha plan.
Congress can also opt to push back with hearings, investigations, and resolutions that condemn an escalation of the war or require President Bush to return to Congress for approval before committing troops. Call that the Kennedy plan.
Choosing which strategy to pursue is causing heated debate within the new Democratic majority, which believes it owes its power to an election-season promise to begin withdrawing US troops. They are joined by a growing number of Republicans who – at least in the run-up to Mr. Bush unveiling his Iraq plan Wednesday – were reluctant to send more Americans into a war they believed could not be won.
But even at the lowest public-approval ratings of his career, Bush as commander in chief brings powerful assets to any conflict with Congress over the conduct of war. He can rally the public (as he hopes to do with Wednesday night's speech). He can order troop movements before Congress can thwart them. He can delay requests for supplemental war funding to blunt Congress's power of the purse.
Only in the last few days have Democratic leaders even entertained the idea of cutting off funding for the war. For Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania, the lead advocate for using funding to force a change of course in this war, timing is crucial. His Defense Appropriations subcommittee is the gateway for every dime spent on the war. He says that he will use that power to bar a troop surge in Iraq if, for example, it undermines the military's domestic readiness.
"If we just pass resolutions, the president will veto them. If he vetoes an appropriations bill, he doesn't have any money. It's the only weapon we have," he says.
But to wield that power, he needs the president to submit a request for additional defense spending before a "surge" of new troops into Iraq. So far, all war funding has been handled that way – as supplemental requests to Congress outside the normal budget process.
In the next two months, his subcommittee will hold hearings to document the state of readiness of US forces and build support for writing benchmarks and conditions into the next defense spending bill.
On a faster track, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts proposed legislation this week that would require the president to come back to the Congress and get authority for deploying additional American troops to Iraq. "I am introducing legislation to reclaim the rightful role of Congress and the people's right to a full voice in the president's plan to send more troops to Iraq," he said in an address at the National Press Club on Tuesday.
"No one – no one – can seriously deny that this civil war is radically different from the mission Congress voted for in 2002," he added.
On the House side, Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts is proposing a similar resolution to require Congress to expressly authorize any escalation of the war in Iraq. "After more than 3,000 American casualties, over $300 billion in expenditures, and almost four years of fighting, an increase in the number of members of the US Armed Forces deployed in Iraq above the current level of 132,000 is the wrong course of action," he says.
Representative Murtha worries that if Democrats settle for a quick, symbolic gesture, they could curb momentum for stronger action on the spending side. Should the president veto the Kennedy resolution, or another like it, it would require a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate to override the veto. "It's not clear we have it," he says.
On Wednesday, Democrats discussed these options in their morning caucus meeting but did not settle on a strategy. "We're going to make a judgment on the best way to present our position on the escalation of the war in Iraq, which our own military does not support," said House majority leader Steny Hoyer, on Wednesday. After a meeting with his caucus on Tuesday, Senate majority leader Harry Reid says that Democrats are working toward "a bipartisan statement on the president's escalation." He expects at least nine Republicans to support it.
For most Democrats, cutting off funds in wartime is still a near taboo topic because it carries a high political risk of appearing to endanger troops in the field.
"I don't know why we have members of Congress out there who say there's nothing constitutional that Congress can do. Politically, they may feel like it's crazy to do anything restricting money supporting troops, but constitutionally they can do what they like and they've done it in the past," says Louis Fisher, an expert in separation of powers at the Library of Congress.
"Congress can attach any condition to any appropriation it pleases," says Winslow Wheeler, director of Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "If they want to say none of the appropriations in the supplemental can be used to keep troops beyond their normal deployment period or to send additional troops, sobeit. The president can disregard this at his own peril."
But it requires careful work to draft constraints into legislation without loopholes. President Nixon circumvented an amendment banning funding for combat troops in Laos by describing the forces as "military equipment delivery teams – end use supervisors."
"Congress can urge, propose, recommend, but it's very hard to legislate when it comes to troop deployments," says Charles Stevenson, author of the book "Warriors and Politicians." "They didn't try to [cut funds for aerial bombing] earlier in the Vietnam War, because they didn't think they had the two-thirds to override a veto."
Military experts say that Congress has other levers on the president, including new legislation on the use of reservists.