Big PR battle over a war

President Bush and congressional Democrats are locked in a struggle over Iraq spending, with neither side budging and each calculating that their argument will be the one to resonate with voters.

For both sides, this rhetorical tug-of-war has become a question of leadership on national security issues and who is more committed to the troops.

“It’s unconscionable to deny funds to our troops in harm’s way because some in Congress want to force a self-defeating policy, especially when we’re seeing the benefits of success,” Bush said in a Rose Garden speech on Monday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wasted no time in responding.

“We could have already given our troops what they need in Iraq and funded our critical needs at home if not for the stubborn refusal of President Bush and his Republican enablers to work with us,” he told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference.

The tussle could be on display this week, if the Senate revisits a $50 billion bill to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but call for most troops to come home by Dec. 15, 2008.

The bill is doomed to fail since it is identical to one blocked last month by Senate Republicans, who said Democrats were trying to limit the flexibility of military commanders. The bill failed 53-45, falling seven votes short of the 60 needed to overcome procedural hurdles.

But with Bush blaming Democrats for failing to provide money needed by the troops, party leaders are on the defensive and hoping to switch the public message.

The president was likely to press his case further at a news conference he scheduled for Tuesday morning.

“Democrats want to work with the president, yet he continues to engage in the same tired rhetoric that does not serve the best interests of the American people,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Once the bill fails in the Senate, it’s expected that Congress will not consider another spending bill for Iraq. While it is possible Democrats could allot some money for other military needs, Iraq will be left out of the equation until Congress returns in January.

After that, Democrats won’t say what will happen.

“House Democrats have passed a bill that provides our troops with both $50 billion in funding and a strategy to bring them home safely and soon,” said

Congress has until mid-February before the Army will cease base operations and until March before the Marines takes similar steps, according to the Pentagon.

Because of the uncertainty, the Pentagon this month will send layoff notices to an unspecified number of civilian employees whose union agreements require 60 days advance notice; the layoffs would be effective next February and could apply to as many as 100,000 civilian employees and 100,000 civilian contractors.

The standoff between Bush and the Democrats is largely on principal, as the Democratic bill would likely have little to no practical effect on force levels in Iraq.

The measure orders that troops start coming home in 30 days — a requirement that Bush is already on track to meet as he begins reversing this year’s troop buildup in Iraq. And the 2008 goal to have most troops home is a nonbinding goal, which means Bush could ignore it.