Understanding the Waters-Boehner Coalition

Supplemental appropriation for Iraq creates strange bedfellows on Capitol Hill, observes Scott Lilly. That's a problem.

The U.S. House of Representatives is an unusual place, where politics makes strange bedfellows. But the coalition to block funding for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and improve the deplorable state of medical care for our returning veterans is one for the record books. 

Led by House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) on the right and Los Angeles Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) on the left, the coalition is striving to put together enough votes to block passage of the $124 billion spending package expected to go to the House floor on Friday. Boehner, hoping to get nearly all House Republicans to vote against the measure, contends:

“… There is only one way to do the right thing: fully fund the troops without strings attached… Setting timelines is no different than handing the enemy our war plan itself. It serves as a road map for the terrorists to plot maneuvers against American men and women in uniform. Micromanaging the war from [the] Capitol is, by any standard or definition, a recipe for disaster.”

Boehner also opposes “incomprehensible spending” on “unrelated, non-emergency” items not requested by the White House. This includes, among other things, $2.8 billion to address a critical clutch of veteran health care crises. Those new funds would be used to tackle the health care problems confronting returning veterans, including funds to address the problems at Walter Reed; improve treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury; speed the processing of veteran requests for entry into the Veterans Affairs’ medical system; and clean up the $550 million maintenance backlog at VA health facilities.

Amazingly, Boehner also objects to more than $3 billion in unrequested funds to cope with other military needs, primarily correcting the shortfall in the readiness of military units being sent into combat.

Waters reaches the same conclusion as Boehner based on an entirely different assessment of the facts:

“Not only did the American public speak loudly and clearly last November 7, but poll after poll reinforces the message that Americans want their troops home now. The president’s supplemental request is just what the word “supplemental” implies—additional funds to expand and continue this war. I believe that there is enough money available in the pipeline to fund a planned exit. I will vote against the supplemental unless the additional funds are used to fully fund the safe, secure and timely withdrawal of our troops by December 31.”

Boehner wants no strings attached and Waters not only wants strings, but shorter and stronger strings. Boehner does not like the pressure that the bill places on President Bush to bring an end to the U.S. military presence in Iraq; Waters does not want to end U.S. presence through pressure but rather mandate it by law. As a result, both want to defeat legislation designed to deliver needed funds for fuel, ammunition, spare parts, and medical care for those presently in harm’s way.

Both representatives, in my judgment, misread the mood of the American people and are wrong on the best course for the country. The American people overwhelmingly oppose the war but they even more overwhelmingly oppose anything that would put the brave men and women we have called into service at greater risk. No war in American history has ended as the result of a legislative fiat.

Even Vietnam, which is the closest parallel, was ended because of political pressure rather than legislative direction. The right way to end our presence in Iraq is for the executive and legislative branches of our government to reach an accommodation on Iraq policy.

The Bush administration needs Congress to support its military and foreign policy objectives. The language in the $124 billion supplemental now pending before the House sends a clear message that such support will be contingent upon a plan for an ordered withdrawal—a withdrawal that protects our troops and American interests in the region.  

But what Waters and her supporters seem to fail to recognize is that the Congress needs the White House. That may be hard for some to accept, but extracting our armed forces from the violence now besieging much of Iraq will be a complex and hazardous process. It will take the best planners that the Defense Department can find. And it will take strong leadership on the part of commanders and hard choices in terms of both military and political priorities.

Equally important, successful redeployment of our troops will take extensive diplomatic consultation on both a regional and global basis. None of those things can be accomplished by the Congress alone. Our government was not designed that way, and it surely doesn’t work that way.

If the two branches cannot reach accommodation, there will be hell to pay and those who have already been asked to pay the most will be forced to pay again.

The language contained in the supplemental budget now under debate in the House demands that the Iraqi government meet certain benchmarks. Provided those benchmarks are achieved, the United States will begin redeploying our troops in March of next year.

The legislation also requires the White House to provide a clear and public explanation if it believes that it must violate standing Pentagon policies on the readiness of military units sent into combat, the length of time troops can be deployed in combat zones, and the length of time between deployments. 

This is very strong pressure on a president who is very strong-willed.

This is the beginning of a process that will either bring these two powerful branches of our government together in mutual accommodation or push the country closer to a constitutional crisis. It is the first step in a process that will continue all year, for better or worse.

Following tomorrow’s vote in the House on the supplemental, that legislation will move to the Senate. A final version will be crafted in a conference committee in April and presented to both houses for adoption by the end of that month so that our government can continue to fund our troops in the field through the end of the current fiscal year.

Within weeks the House will then begin deliberation on the Fiscal 2008 Defense Appropriations Budget, which will remain under various stages of consideration until September. There will be numerous opportunities for Congress to strengthen its demands with respect to Iraq and for the administration to respond.

What opponents of the war cannot do at this juncture is overplay their hand and slow the growth of public sentiment and political pressure against the current Iraq policy and its supporters.

Boehner is also playing a high-risk game. He is putting the congressional wing of his party on record as opposing measures to require that the troops are well-trained and well-equipped before they are sent into deadly conflict. He is opposing funds his own president says the troops need now. And he is opposing medical care for the troops once they return.

Simultaneously, Boehner is saying that the Congress should not apply pressure to the White House for a new strategy to pull us out of Iraq. That is a position that is not only opposed by nearly all Democrats but by an overwhelming majority of independents and a substantial share of Republicans as well. It is not a particularly smart way to redefine the Republican Party in the wake of the drubbing his party took in last fall’s elections.

The supplemental bill going before both houses of Congress is not perfect. There is probably no one who supports every provision. But there is much that is good in the bill and it begins the process by which the Congress and the White House can come together on a solution that is best for the country. It is not as simple or straightforward as many would like it to be, but it is the process that our founding fathers bestowed on us and it is the only approach that can bring an ordered end to this catastrophic engagement.

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His columns can be found on the Open Government page of the Center’s website.

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow