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War Funding "Victory," Bizarro-Style

War Funding "Victory," Bizarro-Style

By Maya Schenwar
t r u t h o u t | Report

Democratic leadership had a fail-safe plan to dole out all of Bush's funding requests for Iraq and Afghanistan, postponing any debate on the occupation until after Bush leaves office. At the last minute, it was thwarted - by Republicans.

At first glance, it seems like a shocking triumph for the antiwar movement: After five years of war, the House of Representatives finally voted down a war funding bill on Thursday afternoon, while simultaneously passing a provision to set a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq.

The catch? The "triumph" was engineered by House Republicans, most of whom voted "present" on the funding bill, which would have provided $168.4 billion for operations for Iraq and Afghanistan. If the Republicans had voted for the funding, as they usually do, the 85 Democrats who voted "yea" would've easily tipped the boat in the war funds' favor.

Catch number two? The "no" vote won't affect policy toward Iraq: Funding will still be delivered, and the withdrawal provision is slated to die in the Senate, as similar provisions have done consistently over the past several years.

The crusade to shoot down Thursday's funding bill actually originated in one of Congress's most conservative bodies: the right-wing Republican Study Committee (RSC). RSC member Mike Pence (R-Indiana) framed the "present" vote as a push for "clean" legislation. Thursday's war funding amendment was considered along with the timeline for withdrawal, as well as a domestic funding amendment that would put $21.2 billion toward expenses outside of the administration's supplemental request.

"I support the war in Iraq," Pence said on the House floor. "I have supported it from the beginning. But though I support providing the troops with the resources they need, I cannot support this war supplemental bill.... Higher taxes and higher domestic spending put on the backs of our soldiers is indecent."

The irony of Pence's given reason for abstaining is that Democratic leadership deliberately structured the supplemental bill so it would be an easy vote for members of both parties. Although the three amendments were considered at the same time, there was no final vote combining them, so Congress members could readily vote for war funding while voting against Iraq withdrawal and domestic spending. The bill's Democratic drafters fully expected war funding to pass, since Republicans and conservative Democrats would be able to vote for it, unhindered by any attached provisions.

Going into the vote, many progressives criticized the leadership bill, calling it weak. Since it provided the option to vote for changes to Iraq policy, but did not attach the policy provisions to the funding, those provisions would (and now, will) likely die in the Senate.

"There's the sense that the Congress is fearful of being accused of not supporting the troops - there are certain members who think that that would be a huge problem for them," Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) told Truthout in an interview that will air next week.

So, if Republicans could sign off on funding without a commitment to altering course in Iraq or increasing domestic spending, why take such a dramatic stand? According to Travis Sharp, military policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, it may have been an attempt by conservatives to frame Democrats as "not supporting the troops."

"Voting 'present' boxes the Democrats in on the war issue," Sharp told Truthout. "Republicans can say the Democrats have failed to pass the money that the troops need."

Pence's post-vote statements back up this theory rather plainly. "Republicans support our troops," Pence told Congressional Quarterly on Thursday afternoon. "Democrats defeated funding our troops in the field."

Considering the simultaneous passage of funding for domestic priorities, Pence's accusations could ring true for voters inclined to equate defense dollars with "troop support."

The War Goes On

Regardless of what motivated the Republicans' surprise move, partisans of all stripes can rest assured of one reality: The blocked bill will by no means cut off funding for Iraq. According to Sharp, the two House-approved amendments now go to the Senate, where they can be amended to include Iraq-Afghanistan war funding. (That procedure has precedent: Last December's $70 billion war "bridge fund" passed as a Senate amendment.) The Senate will likely also strip the bill of many of its war policy measures; withdrawal timetables have consistently met with firm "nays" in that body.

In addition to a timetable for withdrawal, the House war policy amendment includes restrictions on military contractors, prohibitions on torture, a ban on permanent bases in Iraq and protection of Congress's war powers.

According to Craig Jennings, federal fiscal policy analyst at the government watchdog group OMB Watch, because the Democrats' "easy-vote" plan keeps the war policy amendment detached from funding, there's no way it will pass.

"When it gets to the Senate, it'll be a dead letter," Jennings said. "The war policy stuff needs to be tied to the war funding to work."

Last May, House Democrats used the supplemental spending bill to push for their priorities on the war, attaching a timetable for withdrawal to the legislation. The bill passed in the House and Senate, and though it was vetoed by the president and wasn't overridden, it served as a "pretty significant marker of war politics," according to Jennings.

However, according to Jennings, that symbolic victory may have signaled the crest of an antiwar wave in Congress. This year's go at the supplemental, with its offer of freestanding funding from the Democrats, represents a backtracking from the 2007 attempt at an antiwar stand.

Jennings's Senate predictions align with the Senate Appropriations Committee's mark-up of its own version of the supplemental, which was also completed on Thursday. Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd withheld Iraq policy provisions from the Senate bill, in an effort, he said, to speed the bill's movement to the floor and encourage the passage of domestic spending measures.

"I implore members not to offer amendments that are controversial and not germane to this measure," Byrd told his committee. "It is my understanding that each of the amendments that we will consider today will require 60 votes on the floor. If we adopt controversial amendments today, we undermine our ability to provide improved educational benefits to our veterans, extended unemployment insurance or assistance to the victims of Hurricane Katrina."

Although war-related amendments will be introduced once the bill reaches the Senate floor, Jennings notes that Byrd's decision not to address the war in his version of the funding bill "underscores the low probability of a Congressionally mandated war policy change."

After the Senate adds war funding and removes "controversial" Iraq provisions from the supplemental, it will return to the House in a "cleaner" form - where Republicans can then vote "yes."

With a bloc of Republican "yes" votes, there's no chance of a repeat funding-crushing performance, according to Jeff Leys, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence. The only major difference between Thursday's vote and previous funding votes was the mass Republican decision to vote "present."

"I wouldn't draw any conclusions from the fact that 149 Representatives voted against the war funds this time around, compared to the 142 who voted against war funds in December," Leys told Truthout.

He noted that several antiwar Congress members, including Out of Iraq Caucus members Dennis Kucinich, Michael McNulty, Lynn Woolsey and Edward Markey, weren't present for the December vote, but did attend Thursday's vote.

Reading Between the Lines

Leys also warns against putting too much stock in the House's passage of a withdrawal timeline. Even if that language somehow survived the Senate - a highly unlikely prospect - it still might not make much difference for Iraq policy.

The bill would mandate an "immediate" redeployment of troops from Iraq, to be completed in 18 months. However, after the completion of withdrawal, the bill provides for a "limited" troop presence to remain in Iraq, to conduct "targeted counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and other terrorist organizations in Iraq." The legislation leaves "terrorist organization" undefined.

"Given that any armed organization that stands outside of the established army or police force of a country can probably be considered to be a 'terrorist organization' by the powers-that-be, I'm not certain that the partial redeployment language really accomplishes anything of substance, even if it were to become law - certainly not under Bush, and probably not under McCain," Leys said.

The House-approved Iraq policy amendment also includes a measure requiring Iraqis to pay for their war reconstruction efforts, matching US expenditures dollar for dollar. This clause fits in with the popular campaign argument, used by many Democrats, that Iraqis should be paying for their own reconstruction. However, according to Erik Leaver, Foreign Policy in Focus's policy outreach director, the provision is not only questionable in terms of its displacement of responsibility onto Iraqis; it's also meaningless.

"This is just rhetoric - it doesn't have any impact," Leaver told Truthout. "Iraq is already spending a lot more than US on reconstruction."

Yet, in advocating for Thursday's domestic spending amendment, Democratic members referenced the American "sacrifices" made for US reconstruction aid to Iraq. Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel argued that the US has been prioritizing Iraq reconstruction over domestic needs.

"There was no problem when it came to Iraqi schools and roads," Emmanuel said on the House floor, asserting that American schools and roads have gotten short shrift.

Another clause in the policy amendment would mandate that Iraq provide subsidized fuel for the US military, setting it at the same price that Iraqis pay domestically. According to House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, the bill would crack down on Iraqis "overcharging" the US for gasoline.

It's another provision crafted in the campaign mindset, according to Leaver. Yet, at a time when most in the Arab world perceive the occupation of Iraq as an American grab for oil, it may be a foreign policy blunder.

"Requiring Iraqis to subsidize fuel reinforces negative messages about what the US intent is on the ground," Leaver said. "But leadership isn't worried about the message to Iraqis. They're worried about the message to Americans in November."

According to the Congressional Research Service, existing war funding will run thin in mid-June, but could be extended by transferring funds from other parts of the Defense Department budget to the Army.

House leadership estimates that the supplemental's final passage will bump up against that June "deadline": Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told Congressional Quarterly on Wednesday that he expected Congress to send a finished bill to President Bush by June 15.


Maya Schenwar is an assistant editor and reporter for Truthout.

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