The Democrats' Dilemma

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) hold a news conference at the US Capitol March 27, 2007 in Washington, DC. The Democrats successfully voted down 48-50 an ammendment by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) to remove an troop withdrawal date from an Iraq spending bill. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
GETTY IMAGES/Chip Somodevilla
This news analysis was written by U.S. News & World Report columnist Michael Barone.

End the war. Fund the troops.

You can sum up the argument between George W. Bush and the Democratic majorities in Congress in just six words. Both the House and the Senate have now passed supplemental appropriations that in different ways call for a beginning of an end to our military involvement in Iraq. George W. Bush threatens to veto them and any supplemental that places limits on military operations. It's clear that the Democrats don't have the votes to override a veto, or anything close. The Senate version, passed 51 to 47, sets a goal of withdrawing most of the troops from Iraq by next March. The House version, passed 218 to 212, sets a date by which all troops must be gone: September 2008.

The House and Senate must reconcile the two versions, and then the leadership must get the common version through both houses. That may not be easy. Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska says he's reluctant to vote for a version with a timetable. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has reportedly conceded that the conference committee will "take the Senate language on goals." But that will be a hard sell in the House. The 71-member Progressive Caucus headed by Lynne Woolsey and Barbara Lee (who cast the sole vote against military action in Afghanistan) in February called for withdrawal in six months. Pelosi and the majority leader twisted arms and ladled out enough pork (relief for spinach farmers, etc.) to get most of its members in line in March on a bill with a deadline. Now, they'll have to work to get them to vote for a bill without one.

The alternative is to get Republican votes. But only two of them voted for the March bill, and few are likely to support anything but a "clean bill," with no deadlines, goals, or benchmarks. But that would enrage many Democrats. The CodePink group and other antiwar organizations have already been staging demonstrations in Pelosi's office. They'd get really angry if a Democratic House passes a "clean bill."

The Democrats will face the same problem when George W. Bush vetoes their bill. They would like to end the war, but they dare not end funding to the troops. They can hope that the sympathetic mainstream media will put the blame on Bush. But they can't help remembering that the last time an opposition Congress refused to meet a president's demand to fund the government, it was the speaker — Newt Gingrich — not the president — Bill Clinton — who plummeted in the polls.

Good Cop

Conceding this point earlier this month was Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin as well as one of the most visible Democratic presidential candidates, Barack Obama. Levin has called for a bill setting political goals for the Iraqi government. Whether Bush and congressional Republicans would accept that is unclear. It could be argued that it would enable Bush to play the good cop with the Iraqis, with the Democratic Congress as the bad cop. Or it could be portrayed as micromanaging by 535 commanders in chief.

We see here a division in the Democratic Party — its politicians and its voters — that we have seen ever since military action started to be considered in 2002. Then, most House Democrats voted against the Iraq war resolution, most Senate Democrats for it. The lineup today is not necessarily the same: Levin, who voted against the war resolution, insists the troops must be funded; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who voted for the war resolution and said last November that, of course, the troops will be funded now, says he's for Sen. Russ Feingold's March 2008 deadline.

What's curious is that congressional Democrats don't seem much interested in what's actually happening in Iraq. The commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, returns to Washington this week, but last week Pelosi's office said "scheduling conflicts" prevented him from briefing House members. Two days later, the members-only meeting was scheduled, but the episode brings to mind the fact that Pelosi and other top House Democrats skipped a Pentagon videoconference with Petraeus on March 8. How long this fight will go on is unclear. Some Democrats predict that it will go on for months. But their dilemma remains the same. They want to be seen as acting to end the war. But they dare not be seen as not funding the troops.

By Michael Barone