In the great showdown between the White House and congressional Democrats over war funding, it may be all over but the shouting.
Key Democrats – such as Senate Armed Services chair Carl Levin (D) of Michigan – have already made clear that President Bush will get his $100 billion-plus to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this year.
Still, the usual Kabuki theater of antagonistic congressional-presidential relations is likely to play out: This week, the Democrat-controlled House and Senate are expected to negotiate a final bill on war funding that would set a timetable for troop withdrawal. On Wednesday, the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate will meet with Mr. Bush at the White House, where they will disagree on the timetable issue. Bush will veto Congress's bill. Then, lacking enough votes to override the veto, Congress will go back and pass a funding measure that the president is willing to sign.
Hard-line antiwar Democrats will be unhappy, but the party will have avoided the risk of being portrayed as harming US troops on the ground. And Democrats know that public opinion plays to their advantage; a majority of Americans favor a timetable for withdrawal. So even if the Democrats lose the current battle over the funding bill, they know the larger climate works in their favor.
"A lot of Americans would be happy if they learned that American troops would be leaving Iraq at a date certain," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
Lurking behind the latest battle between the White House and Congress is the memory of the 21-day government shutdown of 1995, when the Republican Congress and Democratic president, Bill Clinton, reached an impasse over the budget. Republicans, newly emboldened by their 1994 takeover of Congress, took the fight to President Clinton, who refused to back down. Ultimately, the public blamed the Republicans for the shutdown, which disrupted some government services.
This time it's the Democrats who are feeling emboldened by their return to power in Congress and Bush's low job approval ratings. But they know there's a danger that they overplay their hand – as then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Republicans did in 1995. Now, Bush and Vice President Cheney are using every available bully-pulpit moment to lay out what they see as the consequences of delayed funding for the war, issuing daily counts on how many days it has been since the president submitted an emergency supplemental funding request. Sunday marked Day 69.
"I look forward to hearing how members of Congress plan to meet their responsibilities and provide our troops with the funding they need," Bush said Saturday in his weekly radio address, referring to the meeting with congressional leaders of both parties on Wednesday.
Initially, the Democratic leaders resisted attending the meeting, saying that Bush had offered no room for compromise and thus questioned the point of talking. But after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's recent meeting in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Democrats realized that a refusal to meet with Bush could be a public-relations blunder.
Bush's position that the delayed funding would cause harmful extensions of soldiers' deployments was then undercut by the announcement last week by Defense Secretary Robert Gates that active-duty soldiers' one-year tours will be extended to 15 months. He said the move was necessary to support the ongoing troop increase in Iraq.
Ultimately, then, both sides "may be looking for ways to avoid the kind of real confrontation that would test each side's theory that they can pull a Clinton," says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas, Austin, referring to Clinton's public-relations victory over the 1995-96 government shutdowns.
For the Democrats, keeping the Iraq funding question on the front burner has had the effect of drowning out discussion of other topics.
When the Democrats took control of Congress in January, and both parties spoke of a desire to find common ground, topping the list was immigration reform. When the Republicans controlled Congress, the president had more support for his comprehensive reform plan from Democrats than from Republicans.
Last week, in a speech from Yuma, Ariz., Bush once again laid out principles that seemed more in line with most Democrats than with his own party – despite a list of conditions for immigrant labor he and Senate Republicans had issued recently that took a more conservative turn.
"It may be Bush's effort to soften up members of his own party to help him get something done," says Mr. Buchanan, who notes that it is in both parties' interest to be seen "getting things done" before the next election. "I think both sides are better off cutting some kind of deal on a big measure like immigration than they are in coming to stalemate as they have in so many other places."