In a move that both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have anticipated for weeks, Congress and President Bush are heading into their first direct confrontation over funding the Iraq war.
At stake is $124.2 billion in emergency spending, including more than $100 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Without that funding, the Pentagon says it will run out of money to pay for the war by the end of June.
Congress proposes linking war funding to diplomatic and security benchmarks that trigger deadlines for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, to begin as early as July 1. If Mr. Bush certifies that these benchmarks are being met, the plan requires the withdrawal of US combat forces to begin Oct. 1, with a target date to complete the pullout by April 1, 2008. Bush says he will veto the bill.
In this heated atmosphere, Wednesday's briefing by Gen. David Petraeus on Capitol Hill could not be more timely.
At the heart of the dispute is a tension locked into the Constitution over who directs a war. As commander in chief, Bush says that he and generals on the ground determine the deployment of US forces, not members of Congress.
"I believe strongly that politicians in Washington shouldn't be telling generals how to do their jobs," he said, after a meeting with Gen. Petraeus, who oversees all US forces in Iraq.
Democrats say that Congress must use its war-funding powers to force the president to change course on a war that most Americans no longer support.
In the sharpest exchange to date, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D), once a supporter of the Iraq war, said that he believed that Bush is "in a state of denial" over the "hard facts" of the war. At a critical point in the Iraq war and the Iraq debate at home, Congress is set to "put some spine in our policy," he said.
"In short, there is no evidence that the escalation is working – and it should come as no surprise, because, as General Petraeus has said, the ultimate solution in Iraq is a political one, not a military one," Senator Reid said in a speech Monday.
In closed briefings before the full House and Senate, Petraeus will have an opportunity to clarify whether such remarks justify the current impasse – or have been misconstrued. Republicans also invoke Patraeus as a reason for stripping withdrawal language from the bill. They note that it's defeatist for the Congress to mandate a pullout before the general – unanimously confirmed in the Senate on Jan. 26 – has time to carry out his new strategy. Democrats cite Petraeus as authority for mandating diplomatic and political benchmarks – with consequences.
"If anyone can pull this off, it's David Petraeus," said retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, who testified last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee on military readiness.
Petraeus stands for the view that "weapons are a means to an end, but the end is to shape politics," he says. "After the Rumsfeld era, we've rediscovered that the technocentric view of war – that saw human conflict as an engineering problem – is wrong."
Whether Petraeus can shift hearts and minds on Capitol Hill is not yet clear. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say that the vote count, as it stands, is not sufficient to override a presidential veto. But a veto also doesn't get the president the funding he needs to conduct the war.
In a vote to test House sentiment in a standoff with the president, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R) of California on April 19 proposed that House conferees insist on maintaining a mandatory withdrawal date in the final defense spending bill. The motion, which passed 215-199, was supported by only one Republican and lost nine Democratic votes. A two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate is needed to overturn a presidential veto. But a veto also doesn't get the president the funding he needs to conduct the war.
Republican negotiators declined to offer even one amendment to the proposed emergency spending bill on Monday, citing the need to get on to post-veto negotiations.
"We are not generals. We are not the secretary of state. And we are most certainly not the commander in chief," said Representative Lewis, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee. "We all know this bill is going nowhere fast. Let us quickly conclude this process."
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky says that a mandate to withdraw troops no later than Oct. 1, no matter how well the Iraqi government meets its benchmarks or US troops are succeeding in the field, "sends absolutely the wrong message to al Qaeda, our allies in the region, and our forces in the field."
But many congressional experts see this week's confrontation over war funding as a critical test for a Congress that has long deferred to the White House over the conduct of the war.
"The Democrats are not micromanaging; they're macromanaging. They're not trying to direct tactical units. They're trying to influence the general direction of the war," says Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information.
"Congress has a right to do what it's doing. We still have civilian supremacy in this country, which still includes Congress," says Louis Fisher, an expert on presidential war powers at the Library of Congress.
On Tuesday, Bush addressed the showdown with Congress over Iraq war funding at the White House.
"I'm disappointed that the Democratic leadership has chosen this course," Bush said.
"They chose to make a political statement," he said. "That's their right but it is wrong for our troops and it's wrong for our country. To accept the bill proposed by the Democratic leadership would be to accept a policy that directly contradicts the judgment of our military commanders."