In the first step toward what some believe could eventually lead to a constitutional crisis, a key Congressional committee approved a nonbinding resolution here Wednesday formally dissenting from President George W. Bush’s plan to send some 21,000 more troops to Iraq.
The 12-9 vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which came less than 14 hours after Bush appealed in his State of the Union address for Congress to give his plan "a chance to work," sets the stage for a broader debate next week when a majority of the full Senate is also expected to voice its disapproval of the president’s course, albeit possibly in a somewhat milder form.
Wednesday’s resolution, which drew the backing of all the Democrats on the Committee, as well as its one Republican cosponsor, Sen. Chuck Hagel, declared that deepening US military involvement in Iraq at this time is "not in the national interest of the United States."
"It’s an attempt to save the president from making a significant mistake with regard to our policy in Iraq," said the committee’s new chairman and the principal author of the resolution, Sen. Joseph Biden, who also insisted that, despite its timing, it was "not an attempt to embarrass the president (or) to demonstrate (his) isolation."
But, less than 24 hours after Bush’s appearance before both houses of Congress and a glittering array of other top US officials and the foreign diplomatic corps under the Capitol dome, most analysts agreed that he probably made very few, if any, converts and that the Congress, including a growing number of Republicans, is likely to move over the coming weeks to try to force a change in US policy.
"We think Congress is going to pass this or a similar resolution and then move to a vigorous debate over how to use its powers under the constitution to impose its will," said Jim Cason, an analyst at the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), an antiwar lobby group.
"What’s driving this in part is that the growing perception that Bush is clinging stubbornly to a failed policy, convinced that he’s right and completely unwilling to consider major alternatives such as the (bipartisan) Iraq Study Group (ISG) report (that called for a gradual withdrawal of US combat troops over the next 15 months). People are getting really angry and worried about that."
Indeed, mainstream US media coverage of Bush’s State of the Union address, while careful to balance the critics with the president’s supporters, underlined the degree to which support for Iraq policy already near record-lows appears to have plunged even further over the past few weeks and that opposition to what is called Bush’s "surge" of troops into Iraq has risen sharply.
This was highlighted Monday when the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Warner, presented his own bipartisan resolution that, while somewhat softer in tone than the one approved by the Foreign Relations Committee, stated flatly that the Senate "disagrees with the ‘plan’ to augment our forces (in Iraq) by 21,500."
"The American G.I. (soldier) was not trained, not sent over there certainly not by resolution of this institution to be placed in the middle of a fight between the Sunni and the Shia and the wanton and incomprehensible killing that’s going on at this time," Warner, whose ties to the military brass are perhaps the strongest of any sitting senator, told reporters in announcing his proposal.
"Mr. President, go back and look at all the options," declared Warner in what to most Capitol Hill veterans was seen as a highly unusual departure from his normal courtly and aristocratic mien. His candor was evidence of a growing exasperation that has been coursing through Republican ranks since the party lost control of Congress in last November’s elections and particularly over the last two weeks since he announced his plans to add to the 132,000 US troops already in Iraq.
Indeed, in recent days, public opinion surveys have shown that confidence in Bush’s handling of Iraq is at record lows and that his overall approval ratings have reached their nadir in some cases within just a few percentage points of the level former President Richard Nixon reached just before his resignation. The most recent polls have also shown that a growing majority has greater confidence in Congress’ judgment about what to do in Iraq than the roughly 30 percent who believe the administration can do a better job.
Biden, Hagel and the other cosponsors of the resolution approved by the Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday have made clear that they hope to sit down with Warner and his cosponsors over the coming week to determine whether they can come up with a common bill that would command the broadest possible bipartisan support.
Warner’s resolution, which is more deferential toward Bush’s war-making powers as "commander-in-chief" than Biden’s, is also more specific in defining rules of engagement for US forces in Iraq in ways that would reduce their role in policing or intervening in sectarian violence. It also prescribes more specific benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet in order to maintain high levels of US military and economic aid and calls for Washington to become more engaged in regional efforts to contain and reduce the ongoing violence in Iraq.
The resolution is indeed based on many of the recommendations submitted last month by the ISG, whose co-chairs, former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, and other members have been quietly lobbying Congress since Bush quickly rejected key parts of their report notably reducing the US combat role in Iraq and engaging Syria and Iran in regional stabilization efforts.
Biden and Hagel have also expressed strong disappointment at Bush’s failure to embrace the ISG’s recommendations, so a compromise between the two factions which together would command the support of all but one Democrat and at least a dozen of the Senate’s Republicans is likely.
As both resolutions are not binding on Bush, who has already indicated that he will proceed with his "surge" regardless of what Congress does, however, the big question here is: what happens after their approval?
Led by Sen. Russell Feingold, a fast-growing minority of Democrats has said they will back legislation cutting off all funds for the war if Bush does not heed Congressional opinion, while others, including several presidential candidates, such as Biden, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama, say Congress should impose limits on the number of troops who can be deployed to Iraq or strict conditions on how and when and for what purposes money appropriated by Congress can be spent in the war, which is currently costing the US Treasury roughly eight billion dollars a month.
While precedents for these kinds of congressional actions were established in the 1970s and 1980s, the Bush White House and particularly Vice President Dick Cheney’s office is likely to resist any such constraints on the grounds that they believe that the president’s power to wage war as commander-in-chief is virtually unlimited. In their view, the only way that Congress can legally limit that power is for it to cut off all funding.
(Inter Press Service)
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