Put two red circles on your calendar for this fall. The first is Tuesday, Sept. 4 — the day Congress comes back from its August recess. The second is Monday, Oct. l — the first day of the new federal fiscal year. In the margin on your calendar pages for those days, write the word “Iraq.”
Politicians hate deadlines because deadlines limit political flexibility. However, those two days cannot be avoided. That is when the rubber meets the road in Washington, DC, over the issue that will greatly influence the outcome of the 2008 presidential and congressional elections.
Congress has kept President Bush on a short leash on Iraqi war funding. The recent supplemental appropriation bill passed after much gnashing of teeth on both sides only funds the war through Sept. 30. Congress will have to pass a new Department of Defense (DOD) appropriations bill for fiscal 2008 (which starts on Oct. l) or pass some form of continuing resolution which keeps DOD funding in place until the actual appropriation bill can be passed.
In addition, Congress considers an annual Department of Defense authorization bill for the coming fiscal year. The legislation establishes defense policy for the next 12 months and is usually passed at the same time as the DOD appropriations bill.
The Democratic congressional leadership has made it clear that it expects to enact language in either the DOD appropriations bill or the DOD authorization bill which will lead to a timetable for disengagement of U.S. troops in Iraq. President Bush so far has successfully resisted any such timetable.
However, the closer the 2008 elections loom, the more nervous vulnerable Republican congressmen and senators will become. Ultimately, a significant number of Republicans will join with Democrats and vote for a timetable for withdrawal.
U.S. military officials in Iraq will report on the progress of the surge of additional U.S. troops some time in September. It is certainly possible that they will not be able to give a definitive answer to whether the surge has been successful, but critics of our continued involvement in Iraq will seize on any doubts they express about the success of the mission.
The American public spoke pretty clearly about our continued involvement in Iraq last fall when they handed over control of both the U.S. House and Senate to the opposition party. Iraq policy was a major determining factor in Republican losses at the ballot box. And public opinion polls taken since the election have consistently shown that the American people want us out of Iraq. The key is how to orchestrate our disengagement in a way that does not constitute surrender and gives the Iraqi government some chance of success.
Technically, the president has the upper hand in any showdown over funding because he can veto any appropriations bill that contains a troop withdrawal deadline he opposes, and it is unlikely that Democrats can muster the necessary two-thirds vote in both houses to override a presidential veto.
However, at what point does presidential intransigence become a Pyrrhic victory for the Republicans? If Democrats continue to press the issue and force a veto confrontation, the public ultimately will credit the Democrats for doing everything possible to change course and blame the Republicans for resisting the public will.
If you will excuse the metaphor … Republicans might win the battle but lose the war.
If I were in the Democratic congressional leadership, I would draw a line in the sand (another over-used but accurate metaphor for this situation) this September and dare the president to step over the line. If Democrats do not confront the president over continued funding for the war this fall, they risk losing the confidence and active support of their own base which will be necessary for the elections next fall.
Every so often in politics, a time comes when you actually must deliver for the people who elected you. Some in the Democratic Party will fear that a showdown with President Bush over continued Iraq war funding will make them look weak on national defense.
Actually, just the opposite will be true. If they punt on continued Iraq war funding (at the current level), they will appear to be weak or indecisive to the very people they will be relying upon to win the presidency and to hold majorities in Congress in November of 2008.
The moment will be at hand in September. Mark your calendars now.
Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.