Will the Democrats Squeeze Iraq Spending?

The newly empowered Democrats on Capitol Hill are by-and-large opposed to the war in Iraq. But would they be willing to hold up the purse strings for the war to change the policy? Vietnam War opponents tried, and failed, to do the same thing in 1970.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, whatever President Bush decides to do in Iraq, he will face a Congress next month where skeptical Democrats have much more power. During the later years of the Vietnam War, lawmakers tried to cut off some funding for Vietnam.

But as NPR's David Welna reports, Democrats show little indication today to tighten spending on Iraq.

DAVID WELNA: Michigan Democrat Carl Levin is the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee in a few weeks. And yesterday, he told reporters at The Capitol he gave the president a strong message last week at the White House.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): When I met with President Bush, I urged him very directly to end the open-ended commitment of American troops to Iraq.

WELNA: But speaking a couple of hours later at the Pentagon, the president did not sound receptive to such suggestions.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I've heard some ideas that would lead to defeat. And I reject those ideas, ideas such as leaving before the job is done.

WELNA: Of course, Congress could always set limits on how long it's willing to fund the war, and yet Levin flatly rejected pulling such purse strings.

Sen. LEVIN: We're going to try to change the course in other ways, and we think it's very possible that that can be done because of the elections that took place which called for a change of course, because of a new secretary of defense who has called for a change of course, who says the present course isn't working, because of the Study Group's recommendation, but mainly because the American people have spoken so very clearly on this. We think that that is the way to go rather than to try to use the power of the purse.

WELNA: Levin is one of 23 senators who voted against the Iraq War resolution. So is the Senate's number two Democrat, Dick Durbin. And Durbin is as opposed as Levin to putting limits on Congress' funding for the war.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): I don't want to shortchange our soldiers in any way in terms of the equipment that they need to be safe in Iraq and to come home safely.

WELNA: But by funding them, aren't you keeping them in harm's way over there?

Sen. DURBIN: Well, of course. But the honest answer is, while they are there, we want them as safe as possible.

WELNA: Even a veteran Senate Democrat who voted repeatedly to limit funding for the Vietnam War urges caution. Massachusetts' Edward Kennedy says putting strings on war funding is certainly an option for Congress.

Senator EDWARD KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): I don't think now is the time that that debate should get started. I think now is the time for the president to take seriously what has been proposed and to act on it.

WELNA: But Democrats are by no means unanimously opposed to exercising their power of the purse. Ohio House Democrat Dennis Kucinich this week launched a bid for the presidency and issued a call to action.

Representative DENNIS KUCINICH (Democrat, Ohio): It is imperative that Congress do the one thing the Constitution of the United States provides for - Congress must cut off future war funds.

WELNA: That's precisely what the so-called McGovern-Hatfield amendment tried to do with the Vietnam War in 1970. The Senate rejected that measure 55 to 39. But co-sponsor Mark Hatfield, an Oregon Republican, declared back then on the CBS Evening News it was worth trying.

(Soundbite of "CBS Evening News")

Mr. MARK HATFIELD (Former Republican Senator, Oregon): Perhaps this was not the time to get the majority support. Obviously it was not, but I don't believe the foundation lain was in vain.

WELNA: But such attempts to rein in war funding taught Democrats some important lessons, according to James Alexander(ph), director of the Robert S. Strauss Center at the University of Texas.

Mr. JAMES ALEXANDER (Director, Robert S. Strauss Center, University of Texas): Democrats trying to use the power of the purse to bring the troops home run the risk of being perceived as being anti-soldier and, as a result, anti-patriotic. Remember, in politics, the messenger is an important as the message, and the rap that Democrats have had since the Vietnam War has been that they are not strong on defense, that they are too quick to blame America first and not willing to just sort of stand up during difficult times.

WELNA: Early next year, the White House plans to ask Congress to approve an emergency funding bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that could amount to as much as $150 billion. Democrats say they'll give it close scrutiny. But Illinois Democratic Senator Barack Obama says politics may work better than purse strings to wind down the war.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Look, we've got a presidential election coming up in 2008. I think that there's going to be sufficient pressure generated from the democratic process that we won't need to consider those kinds of options.

WELNA: Especially when you're mulling a run for the White House, as Obama seems to be.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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