Four years after the fall of Baghdad, as US forces see the highest casualty levels of the war, Congress faces votes this week over the terms under which it will continue to fund the Iraq campaign.
Democrats, who won control of the House and Senate on an election-year promise to wind down America's combat role in Iraq, are scaling back expectations that they can muster enough votes to force President Bush to change course.
But a congressional debate over the matter set for this week, they say, will step up pressure on Iraqi leaders to reach a political settlement that could help end the war – and show that antiwar forces are gaining momentum on Capitol Hill.
At issue is whether lawmakers will set a date for withdrawal of most US armed forces. Last month, the House voted to require Mr. Bush to end a US combat role in Iraq by the end of August 2008. The Senate set a target date five months earlier. Bush says he will veto any bill that includes any such timetable, and Republicans say they have ample votes to uphold that veto.
In Michigan on Friday, the president said that Iraqi and American forces are "making incremental gains in Baghdad" and that Congress could scuttle it by delaying funds needed by US forces. The delay in approving emergency war funding "is beginning to affect the ability of the Pentagon to fund our troops and all our missions," he said.
In response, House Democrats cite Army estimates that the Pentagon has what it needs to pay for the war through June. "Although it is the intention of Congress to send you an appropriations measure next week, should you follow through on your threat not to sign it, it is clear that there is ample time to work together to devise an alternative," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders in a letter on April 20.
"The troops will get the money they need when all is said and done," predicted Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a conference call with reporters on Friday. "There's a lot of Republicans who are very concerned about where we are [regarding progress in Iraq], and I think we can pick up some support on a veto override. which, even if we don't override, would show continuing momentum."
But for antiwar activists, it's not enough. Many Democratic lawmakers say they are flooded with calls from constituents urging them to live up to their campaign promises on the war.
Rep. James Moran (D) of Virginia met over breakfast recently with 30 constituents at the Table Talk Restaurant in Alexandria, Va. They wanted to know why he had voted to support funds for another year of war, after campaigning to end it.
"It's a shame I had to disappoint the people who voted for me, because they are the ones who count in the end. But it was the most definitive statement against this war that the Congress has yet had.... It went as far as we could possibly go and still get 218 votes [for passage]," he says.
The post-veto vote on war funds will be even harder, he predicts. "It will come back and pass as a clean supplemental, but not with my vote."
In the House, 42 Democratic freshmen – who voted unanimously with their leadership in support of the war-funding bill – are the key both to their party's continuing control of the House and to the standoff with the White House over Iraq.
"New members were instrumental in framing the legislation to hold the Bush administration and Iraq government accountable," says Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Such lawmakers are now preparing their antiwar constituents for disappointment. House freshmen Reps. Carol Shea-Porter and Paul Hodes, both of New Hampshire, swept into office on a tide of anti-GOP voting in their state, fueled by the war in Iraq. Both voted with party leaders to fund another year of war along with a mandatory withdrawal date. But they have had to work hard to explain that vote to constituents.
"I was very honest about the emotion and difficulty of the vote," says Representative Shea-Porter. "I tell them that you push as hard as you can and cut the best deal you can." She'll find it hard to back a version of the spending bill that removes a timetable for withdrawal. "I voted for this bill because of that deadline."
Representative Hodes, for his part, says that constituents grasp the inherent challenges. "New Hampshire voters are very sophisticated. My sense is that they understand where my heart is, and they know how the legislative process works in a difficult situation, like this one."
In Peterborough, N.H., antiwar activists staking out the front steps of town hall say they are disappointed, but that they understand the votes by their two freshmen lawmakers. "There's a game going on now; I can't say I understand the compromises," says Jim Giddings, a peace activist from Greenville, N.H. "I don't hold it against him," he said of Mr. Hodes, who represents this district. "He is trying his best, and his intentions are good."
Activists on both sides are targeting politically vulnerable lawmakers – moderate Republicans in blue states and conservative Democrats in red states.
"The only way this debacle is going to end is if the political pressure on members of Congress ... finally gets to the tipping point, and they have very little choice other than to represent the views of their constituents at home, rather than the views of George W. Bush," says Tom Andrews, national director of Win Without War, an antiwar group.