It's almost 100 days after President Bush requested emergency funds for the Iraq war, and Congress and the White House are converging on a deal that includes benchmarks for progress for the Iraqi government, including a national oil law and provincial elections.
For Democrats now controlling Congress, these benchmarks – plucked right from the president's 2007 State of the Union address – are a way to avoid giving the White House "a blank check" on a war that a majority of Americans now oppose.
Both sides see the next two weeks as critical. House leaders expect to have a bill to fund the troops that Mr. Bush will sign by Memorial Day, said House majority leader Steny Hoyer in an interview Sunday on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers."
In a letter to Congress last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the funding delay has already caused disruptions and "increases the readiness risk of our military with each passing day."
Bush vetoed Congress's first war-funding bill on May 1 because it set "arbitrary deadlines" for the withdrawal of US forces. He has threatened to veto a second version, which passed the House in a 221-205 vote on Thursday, because it delays more than half the funding until after July – and then, only if the White House can report progress on both the security situation on the ground and political reconciliation among Iraqi groups.
Now the focus shifts to the Senate, where majority leader Harry Reid and White House officials have been hunkered down in secret negotiations. Last week, Bush said he had empowered White House negotiators "to find common ground on benchmarks."
But lawmakers in the House and Senate are still grappling with what consequences should be attached to these benchmarks – and even what they mean.
The House war-funding bill that passed last week includes benchmarks for the Iraqi government and ties funds to meeting them. It proposes holding back $52.8 billion of the $95.5 billion provided to the Department of Defense until the president reports the Iraqis are moving toward specific goals.
These goals include reducing sectarian violence in Iraq, ensuring the rights of minority parties, preparing for provincial and local elections, reforming the process of de-Baathification, beginning expenditure of $10 billion in Iraqi revenues for reconstruction projects, and enacting "a broadly accepted hydro-carbon law that equitably shares oil revenues among all Iraqis."
In particular, the issue of how to deal with Iraq's oil resources is emerging as a divisive issue in Congress.
Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio and David Obey (D) of Minnesota, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, got into a shouting match last week during a Democratic caucus meeting over the meaning of the oil benchmark. The White House says a new hydrocarbon law is needed to guarantee that the nation's oil revenues are shared fairly with all groups in Iraq. But Representative Kucinich says the draft law now before the Iraqi Parliament includes only three sentences on oil revenue sharing – and those, not conclusive – and 33 pages on privatization.
"It is imperative that all of us carefully read the Iraqi Parliament's bill because the Democratic FY07 Iraq supplemental puts Democrats on the record in promoting oil privatization," Kucinich wrote in a May 9 letter to his Democratic colleagues.
Representative Obey objected to that characterization of the benchmark. "The benchmark is that the law be 'broadly accepted' and 'equitably share oil revenue among all Iraqis' – not that the Iraqis pass the law currently before the parliament, says Kirstin Brost, a spokeswoman for Mr. Obey and the House Appropriations Committee.
Another sticking point in the current negotiations is whether benchmarks should have consequences – and if so, what they should be. Democratic leaders say that benchmarks without consequences is the same as a blank check to the president. Republican leaders say that their caucus opposes any moves that tie the hands of the commander in chief.
Meanwhile, moderates on both sides of the aisle are prospecting bipartisan plans that could rally majority support. Last week, Sens. Olympia Snowe (D) of Maine and Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana introduced a plan that would require the Iraqi government to meet benchmarks outlined by the Iraq Study Group and the Bush administration.
If Iraq does not meet the benchmarks, "US forces associated with the surge would redeploy, and the remaining forces would transition to a far more limited mission," they said in a statement.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, a key swing vote in the Senate, says that if the Iraqi government makes a good faith effort to improve along the lines of benchmarks, the need may be for more resources, even if early results are not good. "You need to look at commitment, effort, and results," he says.
Meanwhile, antiwar groups are stepping up pressure on Democratic leaders and GOP moderates in both the House and Senate to keep the heat on the White House to withdraw US combat troops from Iraq.
"What we're looking for is binding measures that will help end the war. At the same time, we're trying to create a toxic environment for people who want to continue the war," says Tom Matzzie, a spokesman for Moveon.org.
Last week, 171 House members supported a measure to withdraw US troops and contractors from Iraq within nine months. "The 171 votes shows increasing depth and breadth of support for this position. Now that we have a clear idea of who is on whose side, the pressure will get stronger," says Tom Andrews, national director of Win Without War and a former US Representative from Maine.