Congressional Battleground

Can the public make its will felt through Congress and start the difficult process of bringing closure to the Iraq War? Although the voters spoke last November, the administration has seen no need to listen. But the prospect of another defeat in 2008 may motivate enough Republicans in Congress to break with the administration on the war -- and by acting strategically the war's opponents and the Democratic leadership can help make that happen.

It is a frightening thought that however little confidence they enjoy, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney will be in the White House for nearly two more years. About Iraq, nothing changes their minds -- not the overwhelming evidence of the failure of their policies, not the bipartisan Iraq Study Group headed by James Baker, not the opposition of top generals, and certainly not the collapse of support for the war in public opinion.

And as if being mired in Iraq were not bad enough, we now have abundant and growing reason for concern that President Bush will widen the war by ordering a U.S. air strike against Iran, or that he will fail to restrain Israel from launching an attack.

Congress is our only possible check on a president's war powers, and there is ample legal foundation and historical precedent for it to act. Knowing that Congress will be reluctant to cut off funds for troops in the field, conservatives often argue that its authority is limited to the power of the purse. But as Professor David J. Barron of Harvard Law School told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on January 28, the Constitution "confers upon Congress an impressive array of war powers that are not tied to its general appropriations power (for example, the power 'to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces')."

Congress ought to use its full authority to bring the Iraq War to a close and to make unmistakably clear what the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, said on January 19: "The President does not have the authority to launch military action in Iran without first seeking congressional authorization -- the current use of force resolution for Iraq does not give him such authorization."

Yet short of 60 votes in the Senate -- indeed, with their majority of 51 hinging on the tenuous support of Joseph Lieberman -- the Democrats alone cannot compel a change in policy. So is all the talk of congressional resolutions to end or limit the war mere posturing? It may look that way. But the discussions this winter are more likely a rehearsal for a historic debate and confrontation with the president over his war powers to come later this year or early next.

Last fall the voice of sober realism counseled that it was highly unlikely, if not impossible, for the Democrats to recapture both houses of Congress. That cautious view underestimated the strength of public dissatisfaction with Bush's policies. No one ought to make that mistake a second time.

Although Bush may now be free to ignore the electorate, 21 of the 49 Republicans in the Senate and all of those in the House have to face the voters in 2008. There are already signs of election-driven GOP defections. Of the seven Republican senators who signed John Warner's letter calling for a debate on the troop surge, four others in addition to Warner are up for re-election next year: Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Susan Collins of Maine, Gordon Smith of Oregon, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

The efforts to limit the war need three or four additional defections, most likely from Republicans who may soon begin to see their own careers in peril if the fiasco in Iraq continues. These could include John Sununu of New Hampshire, Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. If the Democratic tide in 2008 threatens to reach tsunami-like proportions, even a Republican thought to have a safe seat, such as Pete Domenici of New Mexico, could feel the heat.

The outcome of the fight in Congress may depend on the ability of the Democrats to come up with strong challengers in states where GOP senators are vulnerable and on the ability of the war's opponents in those states to make their presence felt. In recent presidential election years, liberal groups have focused on critical battleground states such as Ohio. This time they may also need to focus on states with crucial swing votes in the Senate.

The way out of Iraq is not going to be easy, but the decision must be made. And if it is not to wait until 2009, only Congress can force the issue.

-- Paul Starr

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