Putting Bush on the defensive


The House’s resounding vote on a nonbinding resolution rejecting a 21,500-troop buildup in Iraq places Congress officially in step with growing public sentiment against the war. It also puts President Bush on the defensive going into a far more consequential confrontation over paying for the plan.

Democrats running Congress capitalized on Bush’s greatest vulnerability and the public’s deepest concerns about his leadership to whip up a bipartisan rebuke of his Iraq policy.

The resolution passed Friday does nothing to tie Bush’s hands. The vote, however, did deliver the message that Democrats intend to use their new majority status to further weaken an already tarnished president.

Senate Democrats tried to follow suit Saturday, but were stymied by Republicans on procedural grounds.

Saturday’s vote signaled that Bush is facing a bipartisan, bicameral showdown. While Democrats fell short of their goal of mustering the 60 votes needed to bring up the resolution, a clear majority of the Senate, including seven Republicans, backed their effort to force the debate.

“The Democrats are clearly determined to erode (Bush’s) credibility — even the legitimacy of decision-making,” said Charles Jones, a Brookings Institution expert on Congress and the presidency.

“There has been a significant erosion in the postelection-announced comity and now we see that almost anything he does in his capacity as commander in chief is being questioned,” Jones said.

Democrats tailored the debate as a direct challenge to Bush. Their measure was painstakingly worded to reflect what national surveys show is intensifying public weariness with a war that has killed more than 3,100 U.S. troops and broad opposition to sending more.

In an AP-Ipsos poll conducted Feb. 12-15, more than half those surveyed said the war was a hopeless cause and nearly two-thirds opposed the buildup.

That spells trouble for Bush even beyond Iraq, strategists said.

“To conduct a war, a president needs a unified country, and what this basically tells us is that this country is going to continue to be divided over the war, and it’s going to affect his relationship with this Congress,” said Leon Panetta, chief of staff to President Clinton.

Panetta said the war was “a huge shadow” over Bush’s rapport with Congress and that it would “impact on almost every other issue they deal with.”

Bush played down the vote while laying the groundwork for a scorched-earth campaign against Democrats’ next move: trying to place restrictions on his war spending requests.

Republican strategists believe Democrats will prompt a public backlash if they seek to use the power of the purse — Congress’s only real source of leverage on matters of war — to constrain Bush’s ability to carry out his plan.

They point to polls that show the public broadly opposed to denying the money — only 38 percent back such a step, according to the AP-Ipsos poll.

The president did not comment directly on passage of the resolution, instead dispatching press secretary Tony Snow to issue a written statement noting that it was nonbinding.

After the Senate vote Saturday, Snow said: “This weeks voting gave the world a glimpse of democracys vigor. The next votes should provide unmistakable assurance of this nations resolve in achieving success, supporting the cause of democracy and stopping terrorist forces in their ultimate aim of bringing their violence to our shores.”

At the same time, eager for some domestic accomplishments that could boost his legacy, Bush is trying to insulate the rest of his agenda from the bitter clash on Iraq.

“The president is doing his best to make sure the vote doesn’t mean much and that the funding votes later are the place to do combat — that’s the collision course,” said Charlie Black, an informal adviser to Bush. “In the meantime, he’s reaching out to people to do business on domestic matters.”

Bush’s blase reaction to the resolution amounted to an acknowledgment that he will have to work within the confines set by the Democratic opposition, analysts said.

The House vote “certainly pins down that the Democrats are in charge, and that they’re going to be setting some kinds of boundaries on what they will and won’t accept,” said Fred Greenstein, a presidential historian at Princeton University.

“Bush is not being a kind of a snarling, Cheney-esque back-to-the wall president in response to this,” he said, referring to Vice President Dick Cheney. “It’s part of a paradoxical dynamic in which there’s going to be more give and take between the branches, because there has to be.”

The broad vote also gave Republican critics of the president’s Iraq policy their first chance to register their opposition, bringing home to the White House the degree to which Bush’s influence on the issue has waned.

Bush’s team “did work hard to try to suppress the Republican vote here,” said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., one of 17 House members of his party to break with the president on the resolution. “I told them, ‘I’m not gettable.'”

Bush “has to hear what the Congress is saying, and he has to pay attention, because we just went before the people in November,” said New York Rep. James Walsh, R-N.Y., who backed the Democratic-written measure.

The victory for Bush’s critics probably will be short-lived.

With liberal anti-war groups clamoring for more aggressive steps to end the war and Democrats promising to use their majority status to do so, a bruising funding battle looms.

“There’s going to continue to be this tension between a Bush administration that is escalating the war and public pressure to de-escalate,” said Christopher Gelpi, a Duke University political scientist who tracks public opinion on the war. “There will be mounting pressure on Congress to do something substantive rather than symbolic.”

Democrats’ plan to defang Bush’s power to wage war by placing conditions on spending carries dangers for them, too.

It’s “akin to saying, ‘We will now take responsibility,'” opening Democrats to blame for the consequences in Iraq, Jones said.


Julie Hirschfeld Davis has covered Congress and the White House since 1997.

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press