Impasse Over Iraq War Spending Calls To Mind 1990s Government Shutdown

Friday, March 30th 2007, 8:03 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Republicans miscalculated a decade ago and were blamed for forcing a government shutdown in a spending standoff with President Clinton. Now President Bush and congressional Democrats are on a collision course on Iraq spending _ a high-stakes confrontation to see who blinks and who can successfully accuse the other of shortchanging U.S. troops.

In winter 1995-96, majority Republicans, led by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, defied Clinton and voted for deep cuts in domestic programs. When Clinton vetoed the legislation, a disruptive, nearly monthlong holiday-season government shutdown ensued. Republicans sought to pin it on Clinton, but instead, they were largely blamed by the public for precipitating the crisis.

The current stalemate resembles that earlier battle, but with the tables turned. It's now Democrats who are defying a Republican president's veto threat. Both the House and Senate have passed bills to provide money for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan _ but they include timetables for withdrawing U.S. forces that Bush says he won't accept.

The dispute also brings to mind efforts by Congress in the 1970s to end the Vietnam War.

``Everybody knows that the money will be provided the troops eventually. But, given the election results, Congress probably needs to show the voters that they listened,'' said Stanley Collender, a longtime congressional budget analyst.

``Congress has very little ability once a president starts to wage war to do much about it, except for its constitutional power to raise and spend money. So Congress is here, trying to use the one tool available,'' said Collender, now managing director at Qorvis Communications, a business consulting firm.

Bush is betting that the public will back him over Congress, as it did Clinton in the previous epic spending standoff.

``We expect there to be no strings on our commanders,'' Bush said, renewing a veto threat on both a Senate-passed bill calling for most U.S. combat troops to be out of Iraq by March 31, 2008, and an even stronger House-passed bill demanding a September 2008 withdrawal.

House and Senate negotiators will have to reconcile the different versions.

The White House continued the verbal sparring on Friday by complaining that Congress had left town for a two-week spring break, with the House not even naming its legislative negotiators. ``Every day that the Congress fails to act on this request causes our military hardship and affects readiness,'' said deputy White House press secretary Dana Perino.

In the 1995-96 showdown, many government offices were closed, people couldn't get passports, some government benefit checks were delayed, popular monuments were closed and access to national parks was restricted.

That led to a backlash against Gingrich and other Republicans, setting the stage for Democratic gains in the 1996 elections. Gingrich later called it a ``dumb fight ... dumbly fought.'' Republican Dick Armey of Texas, who was majority leader at the time, later conceded, ``We were outmaneuvered by Clinton.''

Are Democrats now risking making the same mistake in defying a clear veto threat?

Their leaders say no.

If Bush vetoes the bill, ``It's his responsibility,'' said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

The House Democratic Caucus, headed by Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, on Friday issued what it billed as a comparison between the 2007 Iraq debate and the 1995 budget debate.

``President Clinton was far more willing to work with Republicans, while President Bush has been combative,'' said the document. ``Moreover, in 1995 President Clinton was far more popular than President Bush is today and Democrats have the support and trust of the American people on Iraq, while the public opposed the Republican budget plans.''

Unlike the government shutdown, which caused real hardships, few lawmakers in either party expect any funds to be actually cut for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. With small Democratic majorities, a Bush veto is all but certain to be sustained. And passage of legislation providing the funds, without a withdrawal timetable, seems likely to follow.

Furthermore, said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman: ``Whatever Democrats do, Bush has said he's going to keep the war going. They have the money to do what they have to do.''

Still, Mellman said that it will be increasingly hard for Bush to keep Republicans in Congress in line. ``George Bush's career is over. These guys still have careers on the line. And there are not too many of them that want to sacrifice that career for George Bush's ambitions in Iraq.''

The 1995-1996 government shutdown was the nation's longest and followed a shorter five-day one in November 1995.

Before that, a long weekend shutdown in 1990 happened when conservative Republicans initially refused to accept a budget compromise negotiated by the first President Bush that raised taxes, in violation of his ``no-new-taxes'' campaign pledge.

There were about a half dozen shutdowns during President Reagan's eight-year term, lasting between half a day and a weekend.

The impasse on Iraq war spending comes at a time when the president and Democratic leaders are also locking horns on another major controversy: Democratic demands for testimony from top White House officials in congressional investigations into last year's firing of eight federal prosecutors.

That all but guarantees a few rocky weeks ahead.