WASHINGTON—On the eve of the Iraq Study Group's long-awaited recommendations for how to exit Iraq, congressional Democrats were eyeing a different document as leverage for change: President Bush's anticipated request for more money to keep fighting.
House Democratic leaders, who will take control in January, said Tuesday they are considering attaching a series of conditions to the estimated $160 billion supplemental war funding request for Iraq and Afghanistan that President Bush is expected to send them early next year.
They wouldn't specify what their conditions would be, including whether they might attach a troop-withdrawal timeline, as many Democratic lawmakers want to do.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said the supplemental funding request "is going to be the turning point" for the direction of the war. "Those dollars are going to be treated differently," he said.
"There may well be attached to those $160 billion various parameters that the Congress expects to be met," said Majority Leader-elect Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
The Study Group's recommendations, to be formally released Wednesday after weeks of leaks, aren't expected to trigger much in the way of immediate results. But a big war-budget request that requires congressional approval could give Democrats a hand in forcing change.
If they use the funding request to pressure the administration, two political questions arise: Will Senate Democrats have the will or the power to act as boldly as House Democrats? And how far can Democrats push without being accused of cutting off funds for troops fighting on the ground?
In an interview last week, incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., showed little appetite for holding up the supplemental budget request. "We'll see if there's any fluff in it and make sure there's no pet projects," he said. "But if it's legitimate I think we'll have to go along with it."
"We will not cut off funding for the troops," Pelosi said Tuesday, but she added: "The days of rubber-stamping any request by this administration are over."
She underscored that her ally, Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., incoming chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee and a strong advocate for troop redeployment, would be heavily involved in setting Democratic strategy for the war budget request.
Thomas Donnelly, a defense policy expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right think tank, said that Democrats aren't likely to play their new power to the hilt, but they will have room for pressure.
"They could say, `We're not going to pay the bills for a force larger than X size,' or `You can't have this money unless you start withdrawing troops from Iraq.' (But) I think they haven't got the votes or the nerve."
Instead, Donnelly said, Democrats could opt for less controversial steps.
"You start demanding a lot of reports. Or you force the president to certify that things are getting better in Iraq. You can refuse to fund certain White House operations. Or they could say `I'm going to cut missile defense funding to pay for war costs, or other executive branch operations.'
"This is how it works when you have a political division between the legislative branch and the executive branch," Donnelly said. "Obviously in a wartime situation this game of chicken is conducted at a much higher level."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.