The effort of John Murtha and Congressional Democrats to force an end to the surge and the Iraq mission by imposing un-achievable conditions is rightly attracting lots of attention. An editorial by the DC Examiner properly summarizes the disturbing ramifications of the effort, and Rich Lowry writes a great piece on the whole issue, asking at the end whether Bush could afford to veto the legislation.
But I think Bob Novak - in his latest political report - is reading the tea leaves correctly. If Congressional Democrats manage to send to the President's desk an appropriations bill - particularly the Iraq/Afghanistan supplemental bill they will soon be considering - with a raft of provisions that effectively make it impossible to continue the operation in Iraq, it's they who'll get the blame for the confrontation. Novak (no link) says:
Troop Funding: Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) has a knack for shooting his mouth off, sometimes to his detriment. He did this again last week with his decision to divulge the rationale behind the Democrats' latest tactic in opposing the Iraq War.
- Rather than legislating directly in favor of redeployment -- either through another non-binding resolution (see below) or a cut in military funding -- Murtha has elected an indirect strategy of weighing down the Iraq occupation by subtly limiting the number of troops that can be deployed. The limitation would come under the guise of "readiness requirements" that would seriously hinder the military's ability to deploy.
- Who could be opposed to requirements that troops have sufficient equipment and training before being deployed? The problem is that the requirements set the bars artificially high. Their purpose is not to protect the troops as much as it is to put so many obstacles in their way that neither an additional force (a "surge") nor even reinforcements can be easily deployed in the first place.
- Murtha's climb from being an ideologically moderate senior back-bencher to becoming a prominent war critic was incredible enough. But his return from defeat and humiliation late last year toward a position of controlling the Iraq theater has been equally surprising. Murtha and his ally, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, had suffered a huge defeat on November 16, when the Democratic Caucus overwhelmingly rejected Murtha as majority leader, choosing instead Rep. Steny Hoyer.
- Three months later, Murtha has shaped a party policy designed to cripple Bush's troop surge by placing conditions on funding. Murtha just could not keep quiet the secret Democratic strategy that he had forged for the promised "second step" against President Bush's Iraq policy (after the passage of a non-binding resolution of disapproval). In an interview last Thursday with a new anti-war website MoveCongress.org, Murtha revealed plans to put conditions on funding of U.S. troops. Murtha, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Defense, did not hide the point of setting standards for training, equipping and resting troops: "They won't have the equipment, they don't have the training and they won't be able to do the work."
- Murtha's tactic represents the most daring congressional attempt to micromanage armed hostilities since the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War challenged Abraham Lincoln. Not surprising Republicans, Murtha's plan basically played into their hands. Republicans had been suggesting that Democrats would cut off funding for the troops in order to prevent the so-called "surge," and then Murtha went ahead and let out that they would, in fact, try to do so.
- Republicans are poised to contend that his proposed amendment to the upcoming supplemental appropriations bill would effectively cut off funding for the war, confronting moderate Democrats elected after promising voters they would support the troops with a large problem.
- Republicans cannot as easily block passage in the Senate of Murtha's amendment as they stopped the passage of the non-binding resolution on Saturday, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) forced an unusual weekend vote before the Presidents' Day recess. Republicans stopped that on a 56-to-34 vote, using a rule requiring 60 votes to end debate. But the supplemental defense appropriations bill will have to pass in some form at the risk of a complete funding cutoff for the troops. Thus, unless Democrats retreat unexpectedly, Murtha will be driving U.S. policy in Iraq. That is an improbable elevation for a congressman best known until now as a purveyor of pork.
- When Murtha revealed the strategy, the House Republican staff quickly dispatched e-mails to GOP members listing Democrats who had campaigned last year against restricting support for troops in the field. The message asked: "Will they side with Jack Murtha and their leadership in Washington, or with the promises they made to their voters?" Murtha is putting some Democrats in a tough spot (though this is the time in the election cycle to do such things, with the election still nearly two years away). But even left-wing editorial boards such as that of the New York Times are questioning Murtha's actions now.
People often recall how badly hurt the Congressional GOP was by the government shutdown in 1995 - and they were. However, people don't generally recall that Bill Clinton vetoed legislation to keep it open, on the grounds that it contained a 'poison pill' on Medicare. Clinton argued that Medicare was a separate issue, and it should be settled separately. The public agreed.
If the American people sided with Clinton then; they are far more likely to side with Bush (I think) when the question is whether the troops should suffer because of a disagreement on Iraq policy. The emergency supplemental contains billions for salaries, supplies, logistical support, protection from IEDs and intelligence activities. It funds the replacement of lost and outdated planes, vehicles, and weapons - as well as for the establishment and training of Iraqi and Afghan security forces.
If the legislation comes to his desk with the Murtha provisions, President Bush will state that he has no choice but to veto. He'll say that he is forced to do so, because it includes provisions artificially designed to force an end to the Iraq mission. He'll say that the war is at a critical juncture, when the surge is showing important signs of success, and to leave now would dishonor the men and women who sacrificed all to give the people of Iraq a chance at representative self-government. He'll say that if he signed the bill that was presented to him, it would force us to abandon the people of Iraq, who are fighting and dying for their chance to live that dream.
He'll note that the author of the provisions first publicly discussed them in an interview he did for a liberal anti-war organization, and said that they were designed to force a withdrawal from Iraq. He'll spell out what is included in the supplemental bill, and talk about why it is essential. He'll say that the Congressional leadership is recklessly risking the lives of our men and women in harm's way, by denying them needed funds and equipment, and that it is essential Congress send him a 'clean' bill immediately. He'll say that American lives should not be risked over a disagreement between the White House and Congress.
Bush will re-iterate that he is always ready to discuss honest policy differences with anyone, including Mr. Murtha - and that the change in direction implemented after listening to the recommendations and findings of the Iraq Study Commission demonstrate his sincerity. He'll say that Prime Minister Maliki is committed to having the Iraqi government assume all security responsibilities in a matter of a few months, and it is foolish to quit on them now.
He'll ask Congress to return to work immediately on a bill that he can sign, and he'll offer to meet with Mr. Murtha, Ms. Pelosi, and Mr. Reid - and anyone else that Congress wants to send - to discuss this critical mission, but stress the importance of supporting our troops.
Regardless of how they try to dress this up as an effort to protect the troops, I think the Democrats lose this debate. Murtha gave the President a big boost by the interview he did last week, asserting that the point of these provisions is to force a redeployment.
The Democrats are going down a very dangerous road, politically, if they follow this course of action.