Dems" Iraq quagmire

Despite all of the talk on Capitol Hill that the Bush administration has failed to articulate a way forward in Iraq, congressional Democrats find themselves in real danger of over-reaching in their own zeal to score political points rather than demonstrate real leadership of their own.

This impotence in leadership only reinforces the perception that congressional Democrats are reflexively opposed to anything President Bush supports; the true test ahead will be to demonstrate they can put forth meaningful, binding legislation that will receive majorities in either body. The track record thus far with two failed attempts to pass non-binding resolutions in the Senate condemning the war and the iron-fisted manner in which the House majority pushed through a similar measure without allowing the minority to offer a resolution directly supporting the troops has been less than inspiring.

This week, watch for two key leaders in the Senate to take center stage as the Iraq war debate continues. The first is Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). Later today, Byrd is expected to take up the president’s $100 billion supplemental to fund ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, are all expected to testify on behalf of the president’s request.

Will Byrd work constructively with senior administration officials to tackle tough questions about winning the war on terrorism under way in the Middle East, or will he and pointed Bush critics such as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) use the opportunity to posture while appeasing the anti-war left that appears to have taken over the soul of the party in recent years? Things could get even more interesting should Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, make good on veiled hints to become a Republican should Democrats overplay their hand to constrain the president’s authority as commander in chief.

Byrd’s Appropriations Committee hearing will garner particular interest this week given the recent criticism of House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) plan — endorsed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — to condition funding of the war supplemental to tactical decisions regarding troops on the battlefield. Blue Dog Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) likened Murtha’s plan as being as “risky as catching a falling knife” while former admiral and current Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) noted that Congress should refrain from making tactical war decisions. House Democrats have yet to find their voice in constructively addressing legitimate concerns about progress in Iraq without looking partisan.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Del.) is also expected to take a prominent role in the Iraq deliberations this week. Author of a new resolution to curtail the 2002 authorization of force by the president in Iraq, Biden now favors a plan to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq by March 31, 2008. A declared candidate for president himself, Biden now joins the chorus of fellow Democrats hoping to succeed President Bush as commander in chief as one who strongly supported the war in 2002 before expressing regret for their votes when currying favor with anti-war activists.

Cut off funds for the war? Work with the administration to put forth a bipartisan solution? When confronted with the most pressing issue facing the American people today, congressional Democrats appear to be in a quagmire of being unable to put the best interests of the country ahead of their own political aspirations.

Christie, a VP of Navigators LLC, is a former member of the Council on Foreign Relations and previously was special assistant to President Bush and deputy assistant to Vice President Cheney. He now blogs at The Hill’s Pundits Blog.