Afghanistan troop surge could test alliance between Obama, Pelosi

If President Barack Obama announces next week he's sending more than 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, as he's expected to do, most members of Congress will have plenty to say about it. Most of it will be critical.

But they won't be able to do much about it. Obama's change in military strategy doesn't require a vote of Congress. And many of the critics will have little appetite to use the one powerful tool that lawmakers have: cutting off funding.

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Still, the conflicting views could test the strong alliance between Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Obama will travel to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for the announcement Tuesday. But his prime-time address will come just as lawmakers return from a week-long recess, so lawmakers will be able to quickly weigh in with support or criticism.

Republicans are likely to fault Obama for arriving at a number 6,000 troops short of the 40,000 sought by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Liberal Democrats, many of whom supported Obama precisely because he was an early opponent of the Iraq war, will likely lambaste him for escalating another far-flung conflict. Liberals say Obama should lean more on diplomacy and economic development since trying to control Afghanistan with force has proven futile throughout history.

"Additional troops would be totally unacceptable," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). "It's fueling the fires of terrorism."

Lee is chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. But she was also a co-founder of the Out-of-Iraq Caucus, the only member to vote against invading Afghanistan in 2001, and an early supporter of Obama.

Before he departs for West Point, Obama is expected to meet with top Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress. But those leaders probably couldn't call off criticism by their rank-and-file if they wanted to. Leaders wouldn't have much time to sell the plan to their rank-and-file before the speech ends.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) has introduced a bill demanding an exit strategy. A similar measure proposed as an amendment in June got 138 votes, but hasn't gotten out of committee. Lee has a bill calling for a troop freeze in Afghanistan, but only 23 other lawmakers have signed on since she introduced it Oct. 1, putting little pressure on Pelosi to bring it to the floor.

"I hope to continue building momentum for that," Lee said. "We have to talk with leadership."

In addition, House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), House Defense Appropriatons Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.) and Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-Conn.) have pushed for a "war tax" on the wealthy to help pay the immense cost of the war.

Liberals requested a meeting on Afghanistan in a Nov. 17 letter, but that has not happened yet.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said a resolution of disapproval would be the "next logical step." The House passed such a resolution in 2007 objecting to President Bush's "surge" plan for Afghanistan, with 17 Republicans supporting it.

"The drill is the same," Grijalva said. "But there's a Catch-22 -- it's a different administration, a Democratic administration."

Because of that, it's far from clear that Pelosi would allow such a resolution to be brought up on the floor. Pelosi has made it clear that a buildup of troops would not be well-received – she said in September “I don't think there's much support for sending more troops to Afghanistan in the country or in Congress."

But Pelosi is a close ally of Obama, and scheduling a resolution of disapproval would be a direct challenge to a president of her own party that could damage both Obama and congressional Democrats. The two met privately Tuesday as Obama concluded his deliberations on Afghanistan.

If she did schedule such a resolution, it would probably pass with Republicans, who feel the plan shortchanges the commanders on the ground, joining with liberals, who don't want to see any escalation.

"If he goes with a lower number than McChrystal," said a Republican aide, "he leaves open the possibility that Republicans would vote with progressives on such a resolution."

Republicans have played their cards closer to the vest than liberal war opponents in recent weeks when it comes to Afghanistan. Obama's expected position is more in line with their thinking than it is with most of his fellow Democrats.

That's why Republicans would likely not go so far as to cut off funding for the troops Obama does plan to send. When Democrats tried to cut spending on Iraq to force a timeline for withdrawal, Republicans leveled charges that their opponents were not "supporting the troops" to considerable political effect.

"It’s pretty tough for our guys to oppose troops in the field," the Republican aide said.

But Democrats could try to add a timetable or exit strategy to a war funding bill, presenting a more complex scenario. The Obama administration would probably fight it, trying to preserve the president's authority. And it could forge the same alliance between Republicans against limiting the fight and liberals trying to stop the escalation.

The U.S. has 68,000 troops in Afghanistan. Obama is reportedly considering several options that involve different troops levels. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, has reportedly requested that an additional 40,000 troops be sent, but Obama is choosing between options that range from 10,000 troops to 80,000 troops.

Obama's decision will be one of the most momentous in his first year in office. After arguing during the presidential campaign about the importance of winning the fight in Afghanistan, Obama has clearly been torn over whether to send more troops to the country that hosted al-Qaeda in the years before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.