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A U.S. soldier stands guard as U.S. military vehicles cross into Basra from Kuwait, Jan. 15, 2007.
Essam al-Sudani/AFP/Getty Images
The Democrats who now control Congress are trying to put the brakes on President Bush's plans for Iraq. But the president says he'll move forward with his decision to send more troops to Iraq, regardless of what Congress does.
Since lawmakers authorized the president four years ago to use military force in Iraq, the question now is what, if anything, they can do to rein in the president's war plans.
NPR asked Senate Democrats last month about where they stood on using Congress' power of the purse to cut off funding for the Iraq war. And not even Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, a longtime opponent of the war, would endorse the idea.
"I hope it doesn't come to that," Feingold said. "I hope cooler heads prevail and people realize that simply passing a resolution calling for a timetable to withdraw the troops by a reasonable date is the best way to go."
But four days ago, Feingold had changed his mind.
"Congress must use its main power — the power of the purse — to put an end to our involvement in this disastrous war," Feingold said. "And I am not talking here only about the surge or escalation. It is time to use the power of the purse to bring our troops out of Iraq."
Congress has made no such move yet, but speaking last night on CBS' 60 Minutes, President Bush left no doubt how he'd respond to such action.
"I will resist that," the president said. "Listen, we've got people criticizing this plan before it's had a chance to work. They're saying, 'We're not even going to fund this thing.'"
But such a funding cutoff is not likely to happen, according to James Lindsay, an expert on Congress and foreign policy at the University of Texas.
"The problem Democrats have is that they control congress; they don't control the White House, and it's very difficult to drive the car from the back seat," he says.
For one thing, Lindsay says, Democrats themselves are divided about whether to use the power of the purse, because many fear they'd be seen as hurting the troops. But the other reality, he says, is that you need a two-thirds majority in each chamber to override a presidential veto.
"To force the administration's hand, they have to build a veto-proof majority," Lindsay says. "Democrats are nowhere near getting a veto-proof majority. So the result is that if you know that you're not going to win on the ground, you have to hope that you're going to win the political battle."
That battle will likely be fought over a nonbinding resolution that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid proposed last week.
Reid is confident that some Senate Republicans will back such a resolution. University of Wisconsin congressional expert Kenneth Mayer said such support is crucial.
"What would really get the president's attention, I think, is if he has some key Republican defections, and that would be a signal to him that the political costs of this are reaching the point where he has to change," Mayer says.
He says Congress could also rescind its use of force resolution on Iraq, just as it eventually did with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing the Vietnam War. That could lead to a constitutional confrontation, he says, which the president might easily win.