In coming weeks, Congress will face the task of debating President Bush's request for $87 billion in new money to pay for costs of the military operation in Iraq, and reconstruction. The president is likely to receive all the funds he is asking for, but not before opposition Democrats force a debate on the direction of U.S. involvement in Iraq.
You won't hear many members of Congress speaking in opposition to providing funds for U.S. soldiers in Iraq. To do so, each and every lawmaker knows too well, could risk damage to his or her political standing, and probably chances for re-election.
Indeed, one of the complaints of those who speak out most forcefully about U.S. military action in Iraq is that raising questions about the Bush administration's before and after war planning has subjected them to accusations from Republicans of being "un-American" or "un-patriotic."
The latest entrant among candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, retired General Wesley Clark, appeared to refer to this in announcing his bid for the White House. "Why are so many here in America hesitant to speak out and ask questions? Well, we're going to ask those hard questions my friends," he says. "And we're going to demand the answers. But we're going to do so, not in destructive bickering or in personal attacks, but in the highest tradition of Democratic dialogue."
As the 10 Democratic presidential candidates continue their campaign with a focus on Iraq as well as the economy, the congressional debate over Iraq promises more political fireworks. Already, Democrats are floating a number of proposals concerning the Iraq spending bill.
In the Senate, the former chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden, joined with one of the Democratic candidates, John Kerry, to propose a tax increase for the wealthiest American taxpayers to fund the war in Iraq.
In the House, Democrats are demanding what they call a full and detailed plan from the Bush administration before any new money is committed.
"Before the Congress of the United States provides the president with the authority to spend more of the American people's money on Iraq, we have a constitutional responsibility to demand a clear, comprehensive and publicly-articulated analysis of the Bush administration's management of our involvement [in Iraq] both past and in the future," says Elijah Cummings, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
When it comes to the actual debate, Democrats are demanding what they call an "open process." That means they are pressing Republicans who control the House to allow full debate at the committee level, including amendments to the bill, and un-restricted discussion when the measure reaches the House floor.
House Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi says nobody should question Democrat's commitment to the troops in Iraq, but says new spending must be thoroughly examined. "We are sending this letter to the [Republican] speaker of the House asking for full hearings before the appropriations and authorizations committee, so that we know that our men and women in uniform will have what they need to accomplish their mission and return home safely," says Mrs. Pelosi. "That is not happening right now."
In the months since President Bush declared the end of major military operations in Iraq (May-2003), a succession of senior administration officials has testified on Capitol Hill about the importance of following through with the U.S. commitment in Iraq. One of those was Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. "America's troops and those of our coalition partners, among whom I would emphasize are the Iraqi people themselves, are determined to win," he said. "And they will win if we continue to give them the moral and material support they need to do the job."
However, Mr. Wolfowitz has been sharply criticized for what Democrats say are serious miscalculations. Some have gone so far as to demand that he or other officials resign.
Ike Skelton is the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. He was asked by VOA what resignations would accomplish. "That's a good question, that's really up to the President," he says. "I think he ought to take a good look at his team. See who put this together. See who didn't pay attention to my letters that were sent over there, as to the problems of the aftermath [of the war]. And let him make up his own mind."
As House and Senate prepare to take up the Iraq spending request, some key Democrats involved in the budget process are warning that the window for success is narrowing.
John Spratt is a senior Democratic member of the House Armed Services Committee who recently traveled to Iraq. Saying the Iraq operation has placed U.S. forces under tremendous strain,
"We will press for a post-war plan with benchmarks, some means of tracking the spending of funds against the progress on the ground so that we can keep this from becoming an un-ending commitment of resources," says Mr. Spratt.
The Republican majority leader of the House, Tom DeLay, says it's possible the Iraq spending bill could reach the floor of the House by the first week of October.