What Happens After Bush Vetoes the Iraq Spending Bill?

The showdown over Iraq that’s been brewing since the November elections will finally come to a head this week as Congress sends a war-spending bill to President Bush. Though the bill authorizes $100 billion for the war, Bush has rejected its October deadline for beginning the withdrawal of combat troops, with the goal of bringing combat troops home by April 2008, and has promised to use his veto—his second-ever use of this power—to kill it.

On Jan. 13, during his weekly radio address, Bush challenged those who disagreed with him to offer their own plan for Iraq. Led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Congress met Bush’s challenge to come up with an alternative policy.

But instead of seeking the dialogue he asked for in his own radio address, Bush and the Republicans went on the attack, calling the bill “defeatist” and “a cut and run” strategy. The truth is that the measure offers a change of course, not a 180-degree reversal. If Bush and Republicans can’t agree to a plan as moderate as the one passed this week, then they really do want a war with no end.

The legislation sets a date to start rolling back Bush’s escalation of 30,000 troops and calls for bringing home the rest of the combat troops. Instead of leaving the void that many of the war’s bitter-enders predict, the bill would reposition roughly 20,000 to 60,000 troops for counterterrorism missions, protecting diplomats and training Iraqi troops. Finally, the measure sets benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet in order to continue receiving U.S. financial assistance.

These proposals mirror much of what was contained in the bipartisan Iraq Study Group report released last November. They are also endorsed by prominent members of the military. Writing in support of the bill this week along with five other flag officers, Maj. Gen. Mel Montano, USANG, Ret. noted, “Supporting the Iraq Supplemental Bill not only reflects the thinking of the Iraq Study Group but puts teeth to the phrase ‘supporting the troops.’”

The American public also backs the proposal. A mid-April CBS poll found that 57 percent of the public thinks that the “United States should set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq sometime in 2008.”

But if Bush follows through with his threatened veto, the next steps for Congress are unclear. At this time, the leadership doesn’t have the votes to override the veto; they would come up 17 votes short in the Senate and would fail by more than 70 votes in the House. Yet, congressional Democrats are reluctant to sign another blank check for the war.

One alternative floated by Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., would be to fund the war for just two or three months. Another option would be to pass similar withdrawal language with other “must pass” bills, including the defense authorization, defense appropriations and the other Iraq spending bill for the 2008 fiscal year. But unless the dynamics change between Bush and Congress, we’ll just see a repeat of this same game over and over again.

Grassroots groups and coalitions, such as CodePink, United for Peace and Justice, Americans Against Escalation in Iraq and MoveOn.org, are using all of these votes to put the pressure on members in Washington and at home. In Murtha’s scenario, each vote gives them the chance to organize against those opposed to bringing the troops home.

The downside of that process is that it exacerbates one of the major hurdles to changing the course—the fact that the focus on politics has caused the effects of the policy to be overlooked and led many Republicans to circle the wagons.

The reality is that the ongoing escalation causes massive bloodshed every day in Iraq. The construction of a walled city in Baghdad is meeting with considerable resistance among locals. Daily attacks are rising—on Monday, nine U.S. soldiers and at least 60 Iraqis lost their lives. Bush’s policies in Iraq have led to the kind of human tragedy that the nation saw in the shootings at Virginia Tech, except multiplied by three every single day.

Yet, Bush still is seeking a military “victory.” He has actively been seeking a “war czar” to coordinate the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The Washington Post reported that at least three four-star generals have turned down the job. In the same article, Carlos Pascual, former State Department coordinator of Iraq reconstruction, noted that, by looking for a czar, the president was once again headed in the wrong direction. “An individual can’t fix a failed policy,” he said.

After Bush’s veto, progressives in Congress need to remind their colleagues of the failed policies and push for stronger legislation. If the president is unwilling to take the moderate compromise on the table now, it is clear that more drastic measures will be needed. As each vote on the war happens, those opposed to the occupation of Iraq need to push for a full withdrawal of troops, closing the permanent bases, setting aside funds for reconstruction, and a commitment to real regional diplomacy.

That’s a strategy that can keep Democrats united by moving them slowly towards the correct policy of a full and total withdrawal from Iraq, while driving a wedge between the White House and congressional Republicans, who by mid-summer won’t be able to deny that the White House’s latest policy tweak has failed.

Erik Leaver is policy outreach director for the Foreign Policy In Focus project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.