President Bush’s veto of the $124 billion Iraq spending bill puts the congressional Republicans in a spot where they haven’t been since last year: They actually matter. While Democrats have yet to decide precisely what they plan to do, the sense I’m getting from talking to leadership sources is that, in the face of the reality that they can’t override the veto, they are ready to jettison the deadlines for troop withdrawal. Democrats figure they have public opinion on their side at the moment, but that they won’t if this drags on too long. The public wants to end the war, but polls suggest most voters are not yet ready to cut off the funding.* And while there is still some debate over the “short leash” strategy–passing a small funding bill, and continuing to fight–that idea is losing steam, because Democratic leaders believe it would simply give Bush a series of victories.
All of this means Speaker Pelosi is going to lose some of her liberal members going forward. So now the challenge for Democratic leaders is bringing aboard enough Republicans to present the President with a truly bipartisan bill that would turn the politics in their favor. The central point of negotiation will be how strong they can make what’s left of the bill, particularly the “benchmarks” for Iraqi progress on such issues as democratization, strengthening their security forces, cutting down on sectarian violence, disarming the militias and other goals. Or more to the point, what would be the penalties if the Iraqis fail to meet those benchmarks? Many Republicans–who, unlike Bush, actually have to worry about getting re-elected in 2008–are probably willing to go for something significantly stronger than what Bush says he will tolerate. For instance, they are likely to support cutting back non-military aid to the Iraqis. However, it’s far from clear that they would go as far as the current bill, in tying “redeployment” to the benchmarks.
UPDATE: Commenter Eric questions what I mean when I describe Democratic leadership sources:
Basically, the views attributed to Democrats above sound to me like DLC/ DC-pundit conventional wisdom about what Democrats are supposed to think: they’re always courting political disaster when they oppose Bush, they need to embrace bipartisanship in order to turn things around, etc…
What kind of Democratic sources are you talking to? Are you comfortable that they represent the actual views of the Democratic leadership?
I have been covering Congress since 1983. When I refer to “leadership sources,” it means members of the leadership or aides who are well placed enough to be either in the room when these decisions are being made, or familiar with their bosses’ thinking on the question at hand. I do not name them, because that is the agreement I make in exchange for their willingness to be frank with me about their current thinking or the current state of deliberations.