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Talking Points: A Compromised Bill

Congress last night bowed to the White House and passed a war spending bill that places only mild accountability over the course in Iraq.

In a vote that largely split progressives and united conservatives, the House and Senate last night “bow[ed] to President Bush” and passed a war spending bill that places only mild accountability over the course in Iraq. The final bill omitted a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, but established “a series of goals for the Iraqi government to meet… although Bush retains the authority to order that the funds be spent regardless of how the Baghdad government performs.” Bush cheered the compromise legislation yesterday afternoon, claiming that it provides “a clear road map on the way forward.” Just four weeks ago, on May 1st — the fourth anniversary of Mission Accomplished — the president vetoed a bill that would have conditioned funding for Iraq on a phased redeployment. Last night’s passage sets up future confrontations with Bush over the course in Iraq, requiring the administration to present progress reports in July and September. “This is not the end of the debate,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who voted against the bill. Congressional leaders promised “to renew the push for a withdrawal in future bills on Pentagon spending and policy.”

  • Congress should rely on an independent assessment of the war in September. Both Democrats and Republicans have begun rallying around a September deadline to reassess Bush’s Iraq strategy. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) said recently, “By the time we get to September or October, members are going to want to know how well this is working, and if it isn’t, what’s Plan B?” Murtha echoed the sentiment, arguing, “While we don’t have the votes right now to change the president’s policy, I believe that come September we will have the votes.” The success of a September reassessment is conditioned upon a forthcoming and candid report from Gen. David Petraeus, the commanding general in Iraq. But recently, Petraeus suggested that his report will not say “anything definitive.” Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Lawrence Korb writes, “Petraeus is not a reliable source for an unbiased assessment.” The proper course for Congress to take, Korb argues, “is to have an independent assessment by an outside group.”
  • Congress bowed to the White House, not the will of the American people. The New York Times reported yesterday that some congressional leaders decided to concede in the battle with Bush because they feared that “White House attacks that they were on vacation” over Memorial Day weekend would be more “politically threatening…than the anger [they] knew they would draw from the left by bowing to Mr. Bush.” Concern over the disastrous impact the Iraq war is having on America’s national security — not concern over “White House attacks” — should be driving our elected representatives’ decision-making. But even as lawmakers are taking political winds into account, they have demonstrated extremely poor calculus. The White House has little sway in the court of public opinion. Seventy-six percent of Americans say things are going badly in Iraq, 63 percent say the United States should set a date for withdrawing troops from Iraq sometime in 2008, and only 23 percent approve of Bush’s handling of Iraq. 
  • Congress can still assert its authority on Iraq and hold the president accountable. House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-WI), who voted for the bill last night, has pledged to continue the fight for an Iraq timeline “on every vehicle available to us,” adding that the “first two vehicles that we expect to join the issue on are the defense appropriations bill in July and the defense supplemental appropriations bill in September.” Congress has a number of options available to assert its shared power on Iraq policy. Murtha had offered a measure to require the Pentagon to certify that troops leaving for Iraq are “fully combat-ready,” with sufficient training and equipment, but congressional leaders backed down over White House refusals to adopt it. Congress should also revisit enforceable benchmarks, not only over the Iraqi government but over the Bush administration. Some senators, including Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY), have suggested rescinding the war authorization given to Bush in October 2002 as way to transition the mission in Iraq. And yet one more tool for Congress to consider is providing shorter installments of funding, a plan that was passed in the House but held up by the Senate.