TOPICS > Politics

President, Congress Spar over Iraq War Funding

April 10, 2007 at 5:30 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: From the president on down, Republicans spent the day chastising Democrats for going nine weeks without approving emergency funding for the war in Iraq.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Sixty-four days ago, I said to the United States Congress, “These troops need funding.”

SEN. JOHN ENSIGN (R), Nevada: Readiness of the United States Armed Forces will be hurt by the delay in approving the supplemental.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), Texas: It’s just unconscionable to me to tie the hands of the very troops that we all say we support.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Democratic majorities in the House and Senate narrowly passed separate versions of a $100 billion-plus spending bill late last month, each including timetables for withdrawing U.S. troops. But a final bill can’t be negotiated until the House returns from its spring recess next week.

The delay prompted frustrated Republicans to shoot off a letter yesterday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, urging her to bring the House back early and warning that “our troops have been put at risk.”

President Bush echoed that sentiment this morning during a speech at an American Legion post in Northern Virginia. He also reiterated his threat to veto any bill sent to him that includes troop withdrawal timetables. The delay, the president said, has forced the Army to make costly adjustments.

GEORGE W. BUSH: In March, Congress was told that the military would need to take money from military personnel accounts, weapons, and communications systems so we can continue to fund programs that protect our soldiers and Marines from improvised explosive devices and send hundreds of mine-resistant vehicles to our troops on the front lines.

These actions are only the beginning. And the longer Congress delays, the worse the impact on the men and women of the Armed Forces will be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Democrats maintain that the president and his congressional allies are overstating the consequences. They note that a recent report from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service stated that the Army has enough financial flexibility to pay for operations in Iraq well into July.

This morning, Majority Leader Harry Reid said the president must understand that Democrats will place conditions on further funding of the war.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Majority Leader: Things are not OK in Iraq. As the pope said on Easter Sunday, a slaughter is taking place in Iraq. The pope further said nothing good is coming from Iraq.

The president must realize that he has to deal with Congress. We are an independent branch of this government. And by our Constitution, we have equal say that he has. And he’s got to listen to us, because we are speaking for the American people. He isn’t.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some Democrats have signaled a willingness to compromise with the president, and he now says he wants to talk. But the White House says it will not be a negotiating session.

The power to declare and wage war

Michael Beschloss
Presidential Historian
The framers of the Constitution were very worried about having another king of England, and they were worried about the penchant of the executive to go into war, which history had shown them, so they carefully divided the powers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, what history tells us about the president and Congress and the conduct of war. For that, we are joined by three of our NewsHour regulars: presidential historian Michael Beschloss; Richard Norton Smith, presidential historian and scholar in residence at George Mason University; and Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of American history at the University of New Hampshire. Also joining us is Julian Zelizer, professor of history at Boston University.

Thank you all for being here.

Michael Beschloss, to you first. Refresh our memory of the Constitution and of American history. Who has the power to declare war and to wage war?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, the framers of the Constitution were very worried about having another king of England, and they were worried about the penchant of the executive to go into war, which history had shown them, so they carefully divided the powers.

They said that Congress has the right to declare war and support the troops when they're in battle, finance them, and the president had the right to be commander-in-chief and to run the conduct of the war.

But you go through history, there's been a tension, almost a see-saw goes back and forth, just very quickly. In the 1930s, this country was very isolationist.

It felt that President Wilson had made a big mistake getting the country into World War I, so that, by 1937, not only were people worried about a president going into war, there was actually an amendment that was voted on in Congress, almost passed, called the Ludlow amendment.

Had it passed, it would have required, under the Constitution, Congress to say, if a president wants to go into a war, the country has to have a referendum. It might take 30 days, except for in case of attack.

Then, after World War II, things swung very much the other way. The last 66 years, very strong presidents in war-making.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why, Richard Norton Smith, why hasn't it been clear-cut? Why has it gone back and forth? Why have there been these continued arguments over whose call it is?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Well, it's the ultimate policy decision, you know, and the whole debate over who controls foreign policy is really who controls what kind of country we want to be.

Where do we want to be in the world? What are our values? Do we project force? Do we lead by example? That tension, as Michael says, has gone back to the very beginning.

In the 19th century, Abraham Lincoln, when he was a congressman, introduced famously something called the Spot resolution, which would demand that President Polk name the spot on the map where Mexican aggression occurred. That was the rationale the president used for the Mexican war Lincoln opposed as a war for the expansion of slavery.

Now, when Lincoln became president, he had a very different view of congressional attempts to micromanage the war. But I think the thing that's really different in the 20th century, and particularly since Harry Truman in Korea, is presidents don't go to Congress to ask for declarations of war.

And particularly in the wake of Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, I think Congress decided that it had ceded too much of its power, however you define it constitutionally. And ever since, there's been this effort to chip away at a kind of unbridled executive authority.

Funding the war

Ellen Fitzpatrick
University of New Hampshire
I think you have a situation where no one wants to be in the position when troops are on the ground -- and particularly when a war is not going well -- of taking responsibility for it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ellen Fitzpatrick, help us understand why Congress ceded. I think most people do acknowledge that that's what's happened over the last decades. Why has it happened?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK, University of New Hampshire: Partly I think the Congress relies, and particularly in the post-World War II period, when we've seen the rise of the national security state, and so much more of the authority over formulating foreign policy has been centered in the executive branch, the assumption is -- and you had the creation of the CIA, the Department of Defense, the National Security Council -- that the executive has access to knowledge and should be able to move in a quick and supple fashion, because of the overwhelming dangers that we faced in a nuclear world.

And so, during the Cold War and with the ideology of anti-communism, many I think in Congress believed that the president knew things that the rest of the country didn't know. Certainly the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that gave Lyndon Johnson the power to wage the war in Vietnam was based on military intelligence that didn't go unchallenged until very late in the game.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Julian Zelizer, coming into this period right now, into this Iraq war period, is the weight of history then with the president?

JULIAN ZELIZER, Boston University: No, I don't think so. I mean, in fact, I think, while we have seen an expansion of presidential power, we've also often seen an oppositional Congress, a Congress that can be very aggressive and cause political problems.

We saw that in Vietnam. After the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, we had Senator Fulbright dragging the administration in front of hearings. We had Frank Church and others using the power of the purse to create political pressure on the president.

And I think we have a comparable situation right now. While Congress is not yet willing to bring an end to the war, I think you've seen a shift in the political winds since 2006. And Congress is using a very large power that it does have, even in the 20th century, the power to create immense political pressure on the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Beschloss, is that how you see the forces of history?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I guess I probably see it a little bit differently, because if you look at Vietnam, the escalation in Vietnam began in a big way in 1964, '65. The big demonstrations against the war began in '67.

The polls began to turn. The American people turned against the war in a big way, but, despite all of this, it took Congress until 1970 to vote on something called the McGovern-Hatfield resolution, which would end the Vietnam war by the end of 1970. It failed miserably, didn't pass.

And the reason it didn't -- this has a big resonance now in 2007 -- is President Nixon at the time framed the argument in terms of, "You know, you guys want to vote for this resolution? Go ahead. But you will be putting the American men and women who are in Vietnam, in Southeast Asia, in harm's way. You'll be doing something that many people almost consider almost treasonous."

And in a debate like this, it's very hard to get people to vote for something like that. We've seen very much the same thing in recent months.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ellen Fitzpatrick, again, I think this is a variation of what I asked a minute ago. Given all this, why has it been so difficult for Congress to rise up and to challenge the president?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think you have a situation where no one wants to be in the position when troops are on the ground -- and particularly when a war is not going well -- of taking responsibility for it.

You know, John F. Kennedy liked to quote the saying that defeat is an orphan. You know, victory has a thousand fathers or many fathers. And I think, in this instance, the notion that we would not provide the funding, the material, for our troops when they're in a war zone is not a decision that the Congress has been willing to make.

One thing I would interject here that I think is very important is to realize that there are some 58,000 names on the Vietnam wall memorial, and most of those men were dead before the U.S. Congress voted to restrict funds for military operations in Vietnam.

There was an effort after the invasion of Cambodia that succeeded in restricting funds for the operations in Cambodia. But, in point of fact, not until very, very late in the Vietnam War were those decisions made.

It wasn't because there was a lack of opposition to the war. There was plenty of it. But the Congress was reluctant, I believe, even though it held hearings, and even though efforts were made, to really argue that there should be a withdrawal or restriction of funds so as to appear that they were not supporting the troops.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard Norton Smith, pick up on that point and also on this whole question of the role that public opinion plays in this tug of wills between the White House and the Congress.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, it's interesting. Michael made the point about the pressure that came to be brought to bear on the Nixon White House in the early '70s. And yet Richard Nixon used the bully pulpit, most people think quite effectively.

The silent majority was, in fact, an attempt to rally a cultural majority of the American people to push back, if you will, to rally the upholders of traditional values, the flag-wavers, the hard-hats in New York.

And so although Nixon was under, to some degree, escalating pressure, he could tell the American people, "Look, I'm actually pulling troops out of Vietnam. I have a strategy for phased withdrawal, for peace with honor." And so the argument went on; the president, frankly, with access to the bully pulpit, had the upper hand.

Speaking for the people

Richard Norton Smith
George Mason University
I think one thing that people on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue would agree on is that the War Powers Act, which was passed in 1973 in an attempt to finesse this issue, has not met that need. So maybe we can go back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Julian Zelizer, why isn't that always going to be the case?

JULIAN ZELIZER: Well, that's always part of the case. I mean, the president has the bully pulpit. The president traditionally has this argument about supporting troops and congressional opposition being a threat to the troops, not just a challenge to the war.

But, still, I mean, Congress, if you look in the White House, there's often great frustration with the Congress. We have to remember, Vietnamization, the gradual pulling out of troops was in part a political response from a very political president, Richard Nixon.

And part of what he was seeing back then was a Democratic Congress that was becoming restive. And if you look at the archives and the conversations, that was part of the calculation he made.

So Congress has different powers. And sometimes it's very slow to use it. It's also hard to extricate yourself from the war. That's the bigger question. A war this deep isn't going to be ended very quickly; that's what we saw in Vietnam.

So the president does have that power, but I think, as President Bush is learning, it's not always all-powerful.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Beschloss, from an historical standpoint, we heard Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, say today say, he said, "We are speaking," meaning the Democrats, "We are speaking for the American people. He isn't," referring to the president. Who throughout history has determined who's speaking for the people?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, it varies from time to time. But the problem with all this is, if you look through history -- and I think there's something that we really learn that really is a lesson, and especially a lesson from Vietnam and also the war in Iraq, and that is this: What we're seeing now we saw it in what Senator Reid said today. He was even citing the pope, I think, to get some additional moral authority.

But what we've seen is that it is very hard for Congress to bring itself to vote to extricate the country from even a very unpopular war like Iraq, because oftentimes they could be made to look unpatriotic. What's the lesson? The lesson, I think, is, therefore, let's go back to the Constitution, which says, "The president should ask for real war declaration."

It didn't happen in Vietnam. It didn't happen in Iraq. If you do that, you have a big debate, and so people know in advance that this war might last a long time. People know what the cost might be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Can you go back, Richard Norton Smith, to the Constitution at a stage like this one?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I don't know. But I know -- I think one thing that people on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue would agree on is that the War Powers Act, which was passed in 1973 in an attempt to finesse this issue, has not met that need. So maybe we can go back.

The other very quick thing is, where did today's generation...

JUDY WOODRUFF: But who's going to be the advocate for that? I mean, you're saying it hasn't met the needs. Somebody has got to be pushing.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, I think that's something where public opinion plays an enormous impact.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And members of Congress.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And members of Congress, who, after all, very answerable, every two years, to the electorate. And guess what? We're about to have a debate. It's called a national election, a presidential and congressional election. This might very well figure into that debate.

Gradual pressure on the president

Julian Zelizer
Boston University
I see gradual pressure incrementally building on the president. I think it is inevitable that there will be a withdrawal and that this will come to an end.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ellen Fitzpatrick, is it time to go back to basics here, to debate the War Powers Act all over?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Well, I don't know that the War Powers Act needs debating, because, in fact, if you look at the Iraq resolution, you read it carefully, it was clear that there was much that was larded into it that made reference to an ongoing threat that Iraq posed to the national security interests of the United States, and in the context of the war on terrorism.

I think the problem is that, as the president defined things today, that, if we are in an ongoing war, a war without end, traditionally the Congress has ceded powers to the president in times of war and taking them back, that's possible. Congress has the power to end the war, as well. It can commence a war, and it can end a war.

Harry Reid's point today is interesting, because what the founders argued was that the reason that the war-making powers should reside in Congress was that they believed that the representatives were closest to those, the people, who would have to pay for and die in a war.

And, therefore, any effort to commence a war, to, as Madison said, to commence it, to continue it, and to conclude it, should lie with the people and their representatives. And so this debate that is going on is very much a part of what one could argue constitutionally should occur.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I'm going to put a big burden on your shoulders, Julian Zelizer. We've got less than a minute. But given the history here, given the constitutional history, given how this has played out, how do you see this resolving itself?

JULIAN ZELIZER: I see gradual pressure incrementally building on the president. I think it is inevitable that there will be a withdrawal and that this will come to an end.

It's going to be slow. It's going to be, as 2008 approaches, more politicians in the Republican Party are going to start to get nervous. But, unfortunately, there's going to be a lot of death before that happens, and that's the tragedy of the situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Julian Zelizer, Ellen Fitzpatrick, Michael Beschloss, Richard Norton Smith, thank you all for making us a lot smarter about all this.