Both houses of Congress to debate war

For Immediate Release:

June 29, 2010

Contact:Perry Bacon Jr.

Washington Post

Congress will debate its divisions over U.S. policy on Afghanistan a week after a Rolling Stone magazine article showed tensions in the Obama administration's war team that led to the dismissal of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as chief commander of American and NATO troops there.

On Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will start confirmation hearings for Gen. David H. Petraeus, whom President Obama has tapped to replace McChrystal. Lawmakers in both parties have praised the selection of Petraeus, who is expected to be approved, but they will use the hearings as a way to press their views on the war.

Some Republicans, such as Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), are likely to urge Petraeus to signal that the administration's plan to start a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan in July 2011 is just a goal and won't happen if conditions there would be helped by maintaining current troop levels. But some Democrats, such as Armed Services Chairman Carl M. Levin (Mich.), say a timetable is essential to pushing the Afghan government to take on more security responsibilities.

The concern about the war is even stronger in the House, which won't get to vote on Petraeus (only the Senate confirms nominees) but could have its own debate about the conflict.

Reversing the usual pattern of the House moving first, the Senate on May 28 passed with little controversy a bill that includes $33 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But House Democratic leaders have long delayed scheduling a vote in their chamber, aware of grumbling from liberals who view the war in Afghanistan as unwinnable and Obama's increase of 30,000 troops last year a mistake.

Now the House will be forced to act: Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said the Defense Department needs the money to be approved this week, before Congress leaves for its Fourth of July recess, or the Pentagon will have to start reshuffling its resources to fund the war. Democratic leaders are hoping to schedule a vote in the next few days, but they still have a strong antiwar faction that existed well before the McChrystal controversy.

"There is unease in our caucus, as you well know, about the situation in Afghanistan," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) told reporters last week.

In fact, a bloc of 30 House members, mostly Democrats but some Republicans such as Rep. Walter Jones (N.C.), sent Pelosi a letter last week calling for her to delay a vote on the funding bill in the wake of the Rolling Stone article.

Referring to remarks in which McChrystal's aides questioned U.S strategy in the war and Obama's commitment to start withdrawing troops, the lawmakers wrote that "until a full and complete explanation of these comments are presented to Congress, we believe that a vote by the House of Representatives on the Administration's request for a supplemental appropriation for the war in Afghanistan would be inappropriate."

In truth, most of the signers of the letter wouldn't want to back the supplemental under any circumstances. In March, 60 Democrats and five Republicans, many of whom signed this letter, backed an unsuccessful resolution by Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) to call for the removal of troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year.

And other Democrats who didn't sign the letter, such as House Appropriations Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.), have complained about Congress preparing to push through war funding, even as other measures -- such as ones to give states money to prevent layoffs of teachers and other public employees -- remain stalled.

Democratic leaders would like to add such funding to the war bill, but then the legislation would have trouble getting through the House. Some House members have said they won't vote for additional funding for Afghanistan. House Republicans have said they would oppose the measure en masse if it includes additional domestic spending that would add to the federal budget deficit.

But despite this frustration, the war funding is likely to be approved, as most Democrats have said they want to give Obama and his strategy a chance to succeed, even if they harbor doubts.

"The supplemental is about the people we have on the ground now, who are at risk, who need resources. As long as they are there, we ought to give them the resources they need," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).