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Bush vs. America

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Thursday's Senate vote on funding for Iraq sets the stage for an epic battle between Congress and President Bush; a struggle with the dramatic elements of a Shakespeare play: a headstrong emperor who claims God gave him absolute power battling a stalwart band of democratic solons.

The Senate action followed the House adoption of H.R.1591, The US Troop Readiness, Veterans' Health and Iraq Accountability Act, that places restrictions on Bush's conduct of the war in Iraq. These bills force a critical confrontation on the limits of Presidential Power.

On one side are those who argue America is at war and, therefore, the President's power must be broad. This camp, mostly Republicans, bemoans Democratic intent to place limits on Bush's authority as commander-in-chief, and restrict his ability to dump more troops and money into Iraq. In the name of national security, many Republicans seem determined to turn the US into an autocracy, where Presidential power is unchallenged by Congress or the courts: they believe Bush should conduct his "war on terror" as he sees fit; for example, declare anyone he believes to be a threat to the US an "enemy combatant" and deny them fundamental rights.

In this political climate, where the White House and a frighteningly large number of Republicans appear determined to undermine American democracy, it's responsible for Democratic leaders to force a debate about the limits of Presidential power. Bush's conflict with Congress will bring the Administration's war on the constitution into the open and, hopefully, provoke national discussion.

While there are numerous examples where President Bush grossly exceeded his lawful authority, the likely grounds for the pivotal confrontation is the occupation: Did Congress hand Bush a blank check to do whatever he wants in Iraq? This is the key issue because while a strong majority of Americans has turned against this war, Bush continues to ignore public sentiment and pursue his "stay until we win" strategy.

H.R. 1591 places common-sense restrictions on the President's authority in Iraq: he must certify U.S. troops are adequately prepared and the Iraqi government is keeping its commitments, and begin troop withdrawal no later than March 1, 2008. The White House refuses to accept these restrictions and bristles at any suggestion Bush is an inadequate commander-in-chief. In response to H.R. 1591, the Administration message machine charges the congressional majority with "micro managing" the Iraq campaign and "bleeding" away support for our troops. In truth, Congress is-finally-exercising it's constitutionally mandated oversight responsibility. And, it is the Administration, not Congress, that is guilty of "bleeding" the troops: it was this White House that rushed them into battle with inadequate training and supplies, this President who ignored sage counsel about the probability of civil war and didn't send a large enough force, this commander-in-chief who didn't plan for an occupation and ignored evidence that a malevolent insurgency was building, and this Administration that failed to provide enough medical support for America's wounded. George Bush has been bleeding American troops for four years and bleeding the American people, as well.

On Saturday, Vice President Cheney decried congressional intent to set limits on Presidential power: "[H.R. 1591] will hamper the war effort and interfere with the operational authority of the President with our military commanders... we will not stand by and let it happen." The President promises to veto the blended House and Senate bills. He'll start a game of chicken: say to Congress: "give me what I want or I'll accuse you of voting against the troops."

Because most Republicans blindly support the President, Congress will not have enough votes to override Bush's veto of Congress's appropriations bill. Faced with the necessity of supporting our troops, Democratic leaders will have three choices: continue to send Bush essentially the same bill and, if he vetoes it, blame him for bleeding the troops; cave in and give the President the neutered bill he wants; or, do something creative.

Congress must not capitulate to Bush. While the war in Iraq is the most important US policy issue, the President's power grab is the pivotal process issue because it threatens our democracy; the constitutional system of check and balances must be restored. Whatever strategy they finally adopt, the congressional majority must take their case to the public. Democratic leaders should point out they've tried to work with Bush but he remains obdurate, refuses to abide by the will of the people. Democrats might hold a national plebiscite on Bush's conduct of the war: ask the public, do you want the President to continue to have a blank check on Iraq? This process could serve as the basis for a national debate about Presidential power, in general. Given Bush's low approval rating, it's unlikely he would prevail in the court of public opinion.

Congress must confront President Bush and challenge his usurpation of power. Bush can't be trusted with a blank check on Iraq or any other national security issue. Congress needs to restore the constitutionally mandated balance of powers. This is the time to take a stand in the matter of Bush vs. America.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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