Former Sen. John Edwards and Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., are ratcheting up the pressure on their fellow Democratic presidential candidates over the Iraq War as Congress grapples with a funding bill amid intense pressure from liberals to force an end to the war.
Edwards told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City today that the current war-funding bill is a "capitulation" to President Bush, since it does not include a timetable to begin a troop withdrawal.
"Congress should send the president the same bill he vetoed again and again until he realizes he has no choice but to start bringing our troops home," Edwards said. "We need to get out of Iraq on our own timetable, not when we are forced to do so by events."
On Wednesday Dodd announced that he will vote against the measure, calling it another "blank check" for the president.
"Half measures and equivocations are not going to change our course in Iraq," said Dodd. "If we are serious about ending the war, Congress must stand up to this president's failed policy now -- with clarity and conviction."
The war-funding bill is forcing the Democratic presidential candidates to make a stark choice: Vote to fund the war and get pilloried by liberals, or vote against funding and risk being accused of recklessness in seeking to cut off money for the troops.
The political risks are manifest for candidates -- like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. -- who are still explaining their decision to support the war in 2002. And even consistent war opponents -- notably Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. -- are approaching the vote that could come as soon as Thursday with considerable caution.
"It puts the candidates in a position where they'll have to anger the left or their party, or displease the centrists," said Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Boston University. "The clarity that the presidential candidates would like just doesn't happen in the legislative process. Multiple votes -- that's a legislative game, rather than a presidential game."
Clinton has resisted efforts to cut off war funding, but then surprised many political observers last week by voting for a proposal that would end most Iraq War funding by next March.
Asked by reporters Wednesday how she plans to vote on the latest war-funding measure, she bristled at the question.
"When I have something to say, I will say it, gentlemen," she said. "Thank you very much."
Obama also isn't saying where he stands on the bill. He has suggested that he would support sending a "clean" funding bill to the president after he vetoed one that included a timetable for withdrawal, but backtracked on that stance after facing criticism from liberals.
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a 2008 candidate, said Wednesday that he will vote for the bill because it's as far as Democrats can go, given the fact that they lack the votes to override a presidential veto.
"I am not prepared to cut off funding for our troops," said Biden.
The candidates are deeply concerned about the way the anti-war left perceives the current debate. The liberal group MoveOn.org is heavily lobbying Democrats in Congress to reject the war-funding bill, casting it as a way for the president to continue the war at least through this fall.
Eli Pariser, MoveOn.org's executive director, said the group will consider running advertisements against Democratic presidential candidates who support the measure.
"The public elected Democrats in 2006 to end the war, and that's what they're looking for in a 2008 candidate," Pariser said. "They're voting for legislation that extends the war while doing nothing to wind it down."
Some Democratic campaign aides are privately seething at the way congressional leaders have handled the war debate, with an ongoing series of difficult votes pulling rank-and-file members of Congress in multiple directions.
The current bill would fund the war through September and establish benchmarks for the Iraqi government that could be waived by the president. It also includes $20 billion in domestic spending -- including Hurricane Katrina aid and money for children's and veterans' health care -- as well as what would be the first increase to the minimum wage in a decade.
"This is a no-win situation for us," said an aide to one Democratic presidential campaign.
Edwards, like most of his fellow presidential aspirants, voted for the war in 2002. But unlike the rest of the top tier of candidates, he isn't burdened by having to vote on any of the complex -- and sometimes contradictory -- war-related bills that are now coming before Congress.
Democratic leaders appear to be taking the long view with regard to challenging the president on the war. Knowing they don't have the votes to override a presidential veto, they decided to cede considerable ground to the president for now, in the hopes of restarting their efforts to end the war in September -- when the next batch of money runs out.
Though that may not be ideal for the presidential candidates, who want to take firm and consistent stands, it may be the only realistic option for Democratic leaders in Congress to pursue, Zelizer said.
"They've handled it the best they can," he said. "We're still at a moment where there's a lot of skittishness about a forced timetable for withdrawal. It reflects the ambiguousness and the confusion of the Democratic party -- and the Republican party, for that matter."