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POLITICS-US: Bush Suffers First Iraq Defeat in Congress

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Feb 16 2007 (IPS) - In a significant defeat for President George W. Bush, the House of Representatives Friday voted 246 to 182 to "disapprove" his plan to add an estimated 30,000 U.S. troops to the 140,000 marines and soldiers already deployed in Iraq. Seventeen Republicans voted with the majority Democrats to approve the non-binding resolution.

The vote, which capped 48 hours of debate over the past four days, constituted the first Congressional denunciation of Bush&#39s Iraq policy and set the stage for a major battle next month over his request that the legislature approve nearly 100 billion dollars more to finance U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan this year.

Backed by polls that show almost two out of three U.S. voters oppose Bush&#39s plan, often referred to as "the surge", Democrats are already preparing conditions and restrictions they plan to attach to Bush&#39s request. If approved, they will make it far more difficult for Bush to add the troops.

Friday&#39s vote also set the stage for another showdown in a rare Saturday session of the Senate where the Democratic leadership is expected to force a vote on the same resolution approved by the House.

Although a clear majority of senators, including, according to most reports, at least 12 Republicans, oppose Bush&#39s plan, Senate Democrats will likely face a filibuster – a procedural tactic to indefinitely delay a vote – by White House loyalists.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid must round up 60 votes, including those of at least 11 Republicans, to defeat the filibuster, a threshold that he failed to meet just a week ago on a more detailed bipartisan resolution.

Since that attempt, however, several polls have suggested that voters were blaming Republicans for preventing a vote on Bush&#39s plan. Reid is hoping that enough Republicans – particularly those who face tough re-election challenges in 2008 – will want to demonstrate their disapproval of Bush&#39s conduct of the war that they will desert their own leadership, as well as the White House.

"This is a process where step by step, we ratchet up the pressure on the president and on his Republican colleagues in the House and Senate and force them to do what the American people want," said Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer.

While the resolution approved by the House Friday is not binding on the president, it marks an unprecedented repudiation of his policy, which was never seriously challenged during the period that Republicans held majorities in both houses.

But last November&#39s Democratic sweep of the mid-term elections, combined with the virtually relentlessly bad news out of Iraq, transformed the political landscape.

Democrats, who, according to the polls, owed their victory to public disenchantment with the war more than any other factor, have moved more aggressively than many analysts expected to try to rein in the president and begin extracting U.S. troops from Iraq.

The House vote Friday marked the initial move in that process. "This has to be seen as both a watershed and as a first step," said Jim Cason, an analyst at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, an anti-war lobby group.

"Now, Congress has to exercise its constitutional responsibilities and articulate a new policy which it can do that by attaching conditions on funding. And that&#39s what they&#39re doing. New funding should be made contingent on a new policy."

A leader in that effort is the chairman of the House Appropriations Defence Subcommittee, Rep. John Murtha, a highly decorated marine veteran with unusually close ties to the uniformed military. Murtha, who has long been regarded as conservative Democrat, broke with the administration on Iraq in late 2005 by calling for a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops.

At a briefing Thursday, Murtha, who also enjoys strong backing from the new Speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, said he will use his committee to attach a series of conditions on Bush&#39s 2007 emergency supplemental request that will make it very difficult for Bush to add troops, including a ban on extending the tours of U.S. forces in Iraq or sending troops that have not had a year between tours for training.

"That stops the surge, for all intents and purposes," Murtha said. "They know they can&#39t sustain the surge if these restrictions pass the House and Senate. The president can always veto it, but then he won&#39t have any money."

He said he intends to introduce other conditions, including the closure of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and a ban on spending any money for the purpose of establishing permanent bases in Iraq or for launching an attack on Iran without Congressional authorisation, which the Bush administration is likely to find difficult to accept.

On the Senate side, meanwhile, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden, is working on legislation to repeal Congress&#39s 2002 resolution that authorised Bush to attack Iraq and redefine the mission of U.S. military forces there now.

"Opposing the surge is only the first step," he said Thursday. "We need a radical change in course in Iraq. If the president won&#39t act, Congress will have to attempt to do so."

The bipartisan opposition in both houses, Republican and Democrat, appears to have embraced the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), the bipartisan task force co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton.

In its report released in early December, the ISG called for a gradual redeployment of most U.S. combat troops out of Iraq over the next 14 months and intensified diplomatic efforts to directly engage Iran and Syria, as well as Iraq&#39s other neighbours, in stabilising Iraq, among other measures.

In rejecting those recommendations, promoting his surge, and ratcheting up tensions with Iran, Bush appears to have lost the confidence – and patience – of key Republicans, such as Sen. John Warner, the former Armed Services Committee chairman, who, like Murtha, is regarded as particularly close to the uniformed military.

It was his resolution, which closely tracked the ISG&#39s recommendations and was endorsed by a significant number of Republicans, as well as Biden and most Democratic senators, which was stymied by last week&#39s Republican filibuster.

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