Road Map: Congress Prepares to Battle Over Troops Again

Posted September 21, 2009 at 6:27pm

The stark warning revealed Monday from the top commander in Afghanistan that the country risks “failure— without a surge of troops reignited a debate that has divided Democrats and emboldened Republicans.

[IMGCAP(1)]As the 8-year-old war’s death toll has mounted this summer, Congressional Democrats who once were nearly unified in support of the conflict are now increasingly demanding an exit strategy, while Republican leaders are by and large gung-ho for a major troop buildup and are starting to complain that President Barack Obama is dragging his heels on making a decision.

The debate is reminiscent of debate over the surge in Iraq in 2007, when then-President George W. Bush succeeded in getting a Democratic-controlled Congress to give him all the funding he sought without restrictions, but only after a bruising political fight.

If Obama backs Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for more troops, Congress doesn’t seem likely to stand in the way any more than it did in 2007. That scenario calls for lots of hand-wringing by liberals but ultimately an open spigot of funding for more war. This time, however, the war could split the president from his own party’s base.

If Obama puts the kibosh on the surge, he will almost certainly come under intense political fire from the right.

On a series of Sunday talk shows, Obama said he was skeptical of the need for more forces in the region but said he has not made a decision.

“Until I’m satisfied that we’ve got the right strategy, I’m not going to be sending some young man or woman over there — beyond what we already have,— he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.—

McChrystal’s confidential report, first revealed in the Washington Post, calls for a stepped-up counterinsurgency strategy bolstered by more U.S. troops, but exactly how many he wants and at what cost remains unknown.

Publicly, top Congressional Democrats were taking a wait-and-see approach, arguing that the report has not been officially released, and even when it is, it will take weeks if not months before an administration plan is ready.

“It’s my understanding in that report there is not a request for a single troop, OK?— Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. “I think it’s a little unfair at this stage for us to start speculating on things that we have … little comprehension of. McChrystal hasn’t asked for anything yet.—

Democrats privately complained that the Defense Department had essentially ambushed the White House with the leak of McChrystal’s report, arguing the timing appeared aimed at forcing Obama into backing his call for increased troop levels.

Regardless of what motivation the DOD may have had, a senior Democratic Senate aide said Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden will need to personally engage to persuade Democrats to back any increase.

“Either right before or right after they announce his plan, it’s going to need a full-court press— from both Obama and Biden, the aide said. “He’s going to have to show the left that he takes their concerns seriously,— the aide said.

But Obama will need to be careful how cozy he gets with his left flank: Many liberals are likely to vote against a troop increase no matter how seriously the White House takes their concerns, and he will need Republicans to back any future war bill.

Republicans are already on board with escalating the war, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and Obama’s former presidential campaign rival Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) among those taking to the airwaves to say as much in recent days.

Boehner has sought to have McChrystal and other generals testify on their recommendations to Congress and said Monday he worried the White House was delaying action.

“The longer we wait, the more we put our troops at risk,— Boehner said.

McConnell agreed: “Any failure to act decisively in response to Gen. McChrystal’s request could serve to undermine the other good decisions the president has made.—

McConnell added that Obama needs to explain whatever his decision is to the American people, and soon.

“Even with the best strategy and the finest implementation, our efforts in Afghanistan will not succeed without the support of the American people,— McConnell said.

House Democrats already split over the war in June, when most voted to require the Obama administration to develop an exit strategy for Afghanistan. That amendment to the fiscal 2010 Defense authorization bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), failed 138-278.

McGovern said Monday that he doesn’t know where the votes would end up now, but he said the ground has shifted.

“There are a lot of Republicans who are talking to me who are very skeptical of what we are doing in Afghanistan, and there are a lot of Democrats who didn’t vote for my amendment saying to me they wish they had,— he said.

McGovern said Monday he opposed a surge. “I think that would suck us deeper into this quagmire,— he said. “I don’t know how we ever get out.—

McGovern in particular targeted McChrystal’s statement in his report that the United States risked “mission failure— without more troops.

“What is the mission?— McGovern asked. “To me, increasing troops is kind of like kicking the can down the road.—

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said a few weeks ago that there isn’t much support in Congress or in the country for an escalation, while House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has called for the president to present a new plan for success in Afghanistan before more troops are sent.

Hoyer could play the key role in the House in passing future war funding bills if Afghanistan begins to divide Democrats the way Iraq did, and if he decides to support a call for more soldiers in the region. In 2007, Hoyer and many moderate Democrats ultimately backed Bush’s war-funding request without any timelines for withdrawal along with most House Republicans, with Pelosi, House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and many other Democrats voting no.

But a Democratic leadership aide cautioned that it’s too early to know how leadership will react given that Obama has yet to make his decision or lay out his reasoning.