On March 23, after a long, passionate debate, the House of Representatives voted 218-212 to mandate the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq by August 2008. The narrow margin of victory, produced almost entirely with votes of Democrats, marked the first time that either house of Congress has produced a majority in favor of binding legislation to end the war.
The Iraq legislation was attached to a bill providing more than $93 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the vote marked a chapter in the long-running political, institutional, and constitutional battle between Congress and the executive branch over the direction of national security policy. Many more chapters will be written in coming months.
A few days before the House vote, the war in Iraq entered its fifth year. What the Bush administration sold to the U.S. public as a quick and easy war to topple Saddam Hussein instead became a bloody and expensive counterinsurgency in the midst of a civil war.
The November 2006 U.S. midterm elections marked an important turning point on the war. It was widely acknowledged that the dismal situation in Iraq played a major role in the Democratic takeover of Congress from the Republicans. Public opinion polls indicated that a large percentage of Americans had soured on the war, had come to believe that it was a mistake to get involved in the first place, and had decided that the results were not worth the price that the United States was paying. Yet the polls also revealed in the public the same problem plaguing politicians—no one was sure how the United States could extract itself from the morass.
The Democratic takeover had profound consequences on the Iraq issue. Republicans in Congress, no matter how uncomfortable with the war, tended to back the Bush administration’s war policies and to block votes on anti-war legislation. When the new Congress was sworn in on January 4, 2007, the newly ascendant Democrats gained the ability to set the legislative agenda and to force votes on the war.
Although the Bush administration largely ignored the post-election recommendations of the bipartisan commission headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-IN), it recognized that its war policy had to change.
Immediately after the election—to the regret of some congressional Republicans who wished the decision had been made sooner—Bush dismissed the chief architect of the war, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He also turned to new generals to lead the war. Some neoconservative officials who had pushed hard for the war had left government by that time, including Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith. In what appeared to be a last-ditch effort to save the situation on the ground in Iraq, the president announced on January 10 a troop escalation of more than 20,000 troops.
A number of Republican Senators used the troop surge to raise the volume of their complaints about the war, including Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NB), Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Sen. John Warner (R-VA). Democratic control of the Senate meant that new Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) could force two votes on non-binding resolutions that criticized the escalation, the first on February 5 and the second on February 17. While both measures failed to achieve the 60 votes needed to be adopted under Senate rules, they illustrated the rising political intensity of the struggle to end the war.
The House held an impassioned four-day debate on a resolution introduced by two committee chairmen, Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO) and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA). The resolution opposed the increase and was ultimately adopted on February 16 by a vote of 246-182. Seventeen Republicans broke rank to vote in favor of the resolution; only two Democrats registered opposition.
Voting for non-binding resolutions is one thing. Building majorities to cut off funding for a war or mandating the withdrawal of troops is a markedly more difficult task. Take, for example, the Vietnam War—it took 15 years of fighting and more than 58,000 American deaths before Congress finally cut off funding after August 15, 1973, "to support directly or indirectly combat activities in or over Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam."
There are exceptions to this rule. (For example, in the early years of the Clinton administration, Congress helped force the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from Somalia.)
Congress prefers to let the Executive Branch take responsibility to initiate and carry out overseas military actions. And rather than use the blunt instrument of law to end U.S. involvement, Congress favors a version of a bully pulpit—hearings, speeches, letters, non-binding resolutions—to influence the direction of U.S. policy.
Indeed, while Article I of the Constitution vests authority in Congress to declare war, the legislative branch has permitted that power to atrophy since 1941, the last declaration of war. Since then, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the two Gulf Wars, and many smaller conflicts have been launched by presidents, sometimes after congressional authorizations to use force, and sometimes not—but never with a declaration of war.
In sum, it takes tremendous congressional will, overwhelming public anger, and skillful political organization for Congress to challenge a president’s ability to make war. As mentioned earlier, the November election was the first trigger in the rising resistance to the war, and the announcement in January 2007 of a troop surge was the second. Then came a third—the administration’s February request for more than $93 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That request provided the vehicle for writing anti-war provisions.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Appropriations Committee Chair David Obey (D-WI), and Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha (D-PA) shaped the legislation that the House adopted on March 23. In writing the provisions, they had to thread a needle with language that could appeal to the anti-war liberals on the left and the more moderate "blue dog" Democrats. The progressives were averse to voting for any additional war funding, while the moderates were uncomfortable with provisions to establish a firm date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The far left position was represented by a quartet of California Democrats: Rep. Barbara Lee, Rep. Maxine Walters, Rep. Lynn Woolsey, and Rep. Diane Watson. Lee argued on March 23: "As someone who opposed this war from the beginning, I have voted against every single penny for this war and found myself today in the difficult position of having to choose between voting against funding for the war or for establishing timelines to end it … as a matter of conscience I cast my vote against the funding."
On the other side of the party, Rep. Dan Boren (D-OK) vigorously opposed the troop surge but rejected legislative mandates: "Our country is best served by one commander in chief, not 535 of them," he said in a March 22 statement.
Although the House bill also tacked on about $29 billion for veterans’ health care, Hurricane Katrina assistance, agricultural disaster relief, and healthcare, representatives made up their minds for or against the bill based on their views of the Iraq legislation.
After careful negotiations, the Democratic leadership devised provisions that require the withdrawal of most U.S. troops by the end of August 2008. The president would be asked to certify by July 1 and October 1, 2007, that the Iraqis are meeting benchmarks outlined in January 2007. If he could not so certify, the troop withdrawal would have to be completed earlier than August 2008. A "Murtha provision" was also added to the legislation to require that new troops sent to Iraq are fully trained and equipped; however, the president could waive the requirements.
But the overwhelming majority of Republicans, no matter how uncomfortable with the war, refused to endorse language that they claimed would incapacitate the president or the military. House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio on March 23 called the Democratic provisions "a ‘slow-bleed’ strategy designed to undermine our generals and hamstring our troops in the global war on terror."
More than a week before the House vote, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) labeled a comparable Senate provision as "unprecedented in the powers it would arrogate to the Congress in time of war" (New York Times, March 15).
Most of the blue dog Democrats went along with the compromise. The splits among the left were quite vigorous, not only in the House, but also among the general public. Many progressive groups, including United For Peace & Justice (a coalition of organizations), True Majority (a Ben Cohen-led group), and Peace Action, vigorously opposed the House measure. Their message was simple: Congress should not approve another dollar for an immoral and illegal war.
A minority of organizations, including MoveOn.org, Council for a Livable World (of which I am president), VoteVets, and several unions, endorsed the Democratic proposal as the best means available in Congress to end the war because of its binding legislation to force an exit from Iraq.
Some groups cautiously tried to navigate between those two positions. The Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) wrote: "If members of Congress are unwilling to oppose new war funding, we at FCNL urge them not to approve one more dollar for the war without also insisting on new U.S. diplomacy and a date for U.S. troop withdrawal."
In the end, most House progressives wound up voting for the bill, if reluctantly. As Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), a staunch anti-war activist, said on the House floor on March 22: "I voted against this war from the very beginning, when this vote was not politically popular. I was an original member of the Out of Iraq Caucus … I have come to the conclusion that defeating the supplemental bill before us today would send a message to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney that they will continue to have a free pass from this Congress to do whatever the hell they want to do … I cannot do that. I will not do that. So I will vote ‘yes.’"
For the House Democratic leadership, it was the congressional equivalent of house-to-house combat. Members had to be convinced one-by-one to build toward the 218 votes needed to adopt the measure. The leadership finally secured a majority in the last 24 hours before the dramatic roll call. In the end, only 14 Democrats voted "no"—half progressives and half moderates. Two Republicans, longtime war opponents Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) and Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD), joined the House majority.
In a backhanded acknowledgment of the political potency of the House majority, Bush condemned the House vote on the day it was cast: "Democrats in the House, in an act of political theater, voted to substitute their judgment for that of our military commanders on the ground in Iraq. They set rigid restrictions that will require an army of lawyers to interpret. They set an arbitrary date for withdrawal without regard for conditions on the ground … As I have made clear for weeks, I will veto it if it comes to my desk."
Again, the House vote marks only one chapter in the Congress versus executive branch struggle. This week, the Senate was expected to consider a measure to mandate the beginning of a troop redeployment. Furthermore, there are likely to be further votes when Congress considers the Defense Authorization Bill and the Defense Appropriations Bill later in the year.
Eventually, the House and Senate will have to work out their different versions of the Iraq legislation in a House-Senate conference on the Supplemental Appropriations bill. Ultimately, if Congress adopts strong language, a two-thirds vote of the Senate and the House will be required to overcome a presidential veto. As the March 23 vote indicated, war opponents are far from building such a substantial majority.
There are clear risks for both parties in the Iraq debate. In the wake of the Vietnam War, Democrats were tagged with the label "soft on defense" that hurt them politically. Democrats will have to navigate carefully to avoid that label.
On the other hand, Republicans too are at political risk. A number of Republican politicians paid a price for their role in the war at the polls in November; some of these members of Congress who are holding vulnerable House or Senate seats are building a record of repeated voting for a failed war. It is widely believed in political circles that if there are a significant number of U.S. troops in Iraq in November 2008, it will cost the Republican Party votes in the presidential and congressional elections.
Indeed, the most likely way for the war to end is if Republicans leaders, fearing further damage to country and party, head down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House later this year or early next and tell George W. Bush that it is time to end the war. A delegation of top Republicans told Richard Nixon in 1974 that it was time for him to go; history may repeat itself.
John Isaacs is the executive director of the Council for a Livable World and a contributor to Right Web (rightweb.irc-online.org).