Point Austin: Congress' War

It did not begin – nor will end – in a day

Point Austin
Any discussion of the congressional response to the Bush administration's continuing refusal to begin winding down its war on Iraq should begin with the highly contradictory attitudes of the House representatives' constituents (that is, us), as expressed in numerous national polls. As noticed again this week, by Truthout columnist William Rivers Pitt, "A recent CBS/New York Times poll laid out the conundrum: a huge majority disapprove of the war and wants to withdraw, or at least wants timetables set for that withdrawal. That same poll, however, showed a meager 13% support cutting the war funding, which is pretty much the biggest club in the Democratic bag." (This week's Washington Post/ABC poll found much the same: 55% want withdrawal, but only 15% want "immediate" withdrawal.) If the same Americans who say they want the war to end overwhelmingly don't want to stop giving Bush money to fight it, how exactly is Congress – attuned to voter sentiment like aspens to the breeze – to be expected to do what is necessary?

That is not to excuse congressional vacillation on the war – where everybody is ready to panic but nobody wants to panic first – but it is at least partly in response to the rhetorical drubbing the "Democratic" Congress has taken in the last couple of weeks from the left, especially the hair-trigger "netroots," in the wake of the May 24 vote to approve the supplemental military appropriations bill. I think the world of anti-war hero Cindy Sheehan (who in disillusionment last week stepped away from public life), but did she really think that last November the Democrats had somehow acquired a wand that magically delivers veto-proof majorities?

At the same time, I don't think Congress, and especially the Democrats, should be let easily off the hook. As Austin Rep. Lloyd Doggett told the Chronicle last week, "I'd hoped that we were going to be building our numbers up, and yesterday we ended up with fewer votes than we had a few weeks ago." More precisely, 171 House votes for the earlier "phased withdrawal" initiative had diminished to 140 Democratic votes against continued funding of the war. Since the Republicans voted in lockstep (194-2), that meant 280-142 to give the Bush administration the notorious "blank check." Among Texas reps, it was worse: 27 votes, including nine Democrats, in favor of the bill.

Texas-Sized Excuses

Hoping for some explanation, I queried as many of the nine Texas Dems as I could reach, along with (partly) Austin Republicans Lamar Smith and Michael McCaul. In brief, I asked them two questions: 1) why they voted to continue funding the war without restrictions on the administration and 2) what would it take to persuade them to place restrictions on the funding.

The answers were very mixed and suggestive of their current political predicament. Gene Green of Houston deplored the administration's management of the war, saying, "After four years, the situation in Iraq is as volatile as ever, and we are not seeing progress," but he added that he voted for the May 24 supplemental "because we must not cut off funding for our troops in the field." He said he doesn't support immediate withdrawal but "redeploying in stages," with remaining U.S. troops playing only a small supporting role.

Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, pointed to veterans' and children's health-care funding in the bill as justifying his support, while referring only vaguely to "accountability" for the Iraqi government and a "new direction" in Iraq. Chet Edwards of Waco (aka Fort Hood) was more blunt, citing his previous statement, "Congress and the administration have a moral obligation to fund our troops while they are in harm's way. Without this funding, our troops would have been put at greater risk, and operations at U.S. military installations here at home would have been seriously hamstrung."

The problem with Edwards' logic, of course, is that as long as this president is in office, those troops will remain in harm's way – unless Congress does something to prevent it.

Looking for a Way

Perhaps the most thoughtful response came from San Antonio's Charlie Gonzalez, who also pointed to veterans' health-care funds (desperately needed in his district) and recalled that he had voted, in the first place, against the initial authorization for the Iraq war. "That's where I think we need to challenge the president," he said. "It's our constitutional authority to make war. We authorized the war – why can't we 'unauthorize' it? ... If we did that, the burden would be on [Bush] to end the war, and he will not be able to shift it." I asked him if he thought it realistic to believe that members who would not vote against continued funding would vote to withdraw authorization. He responded, "I still think it's the only realistic way to bring the war to an end." I wished Rep. Gonzalez, sincerely, the best of luck. Interestingly for mostly blue Chronicle readers, the local Republicans are also feeling the heat and trying increasingly to separate themselves from the sinking administration. Lamar Smith, who rarely breaks GOP ranks, roundly endorsed "the global war on terror," then added, "My hope and expectation is that our troops will begin returning home within a year." That at least sounds like political patience wearing thin.

And Michael McCaul pointed to his co-sponsorship, this week, of a bipartisan bill that would put into law the recommendations of last year's Iraq Study Group, which would require broader diplomacy, prioritize training the Iraqi military, and – most important for this discussion – "setting conditions that could lead to redeployment of U.S. combat brigades not needed for force protection as early as the first quarter of 2008."

And that sounds like the congressional middle desperately looking for a place to land. After years of the national conversation being pushed relentlessly rightward, the colossal failure of the Bush administration, on many fronts, is finally pushing the public discussion in the other direction. It will be painfully slow, and uneven, but political victories never go to those who throw up their hands and leave the field. end story

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Iraq WarU.S. Congress, Iraq War, Lamar Smith, Michael McCaul, Gene Green, Henry Cuellar, Chet Edwards, Cindy Sheehan, Charles Gonzalez, Iraq Study Group

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