After a nearly four-month standoff between the Democratic-controlled Congress and the White House, the House and Senate passed a war funding bill Thursday evening that does not contain timetables for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The overwhelming majority of House Democrats voted against the bill, even those Democratic leaders who introduced the legislation to be voted upon -- a tacit acknowledgement that, at least in this round of wrangling, President George W. Bush won.
In the Senate, the bill passed overwhelmingly, 80-14, though three of four Democrats running for president -- Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Barack Obama, D-Ill. -- were in the minority voting against funds for the wars.
"This vote is a choice between validating the same failed policy in Iraq that has cost us so many lives and demanding a new one," Obama said in a statement. "And I am demanding a new one."
Clinton, in a statement, said she voted against the legislation "because it fails to compel the president to give our troops a new strategy in Iraq."
She said she wished President Bush "had followed the will of the people and signed the original bill we sent which both funded the troops and set a new course of phased redeployment."
But the no vote was not the mainstream Democratic view. Indeed, of the 16 sitting senators who voted against going to war to begin with, 11 voted to provide funds for U.S. troops Thursday evening.
"Though I loathe this decision to fund the war, I will not take out my feelings against the troops in the field," said Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who voted against authorizing use of force in Iraq in October 2002. "Our soldiers should never be bargaining chips in this debate."
Durbin was joined by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chair of the Armed Services Committee, who also voted against going to war nearly five years ago.
"I cannot vote to stop funding our troops who are in harm's way," Levin said. "It is not the proper way that we can bring this was to an end. It is not the proper way that we can put pressure on Iraqi leaders."
Clinton and Obama felt differently, though the decision was apparently not easy. Neither would discuss the vote before it was cast. Both were among the last dozen or so to vote; Obama slipped in quietly onto the Senate floor at close to 8:45 p.m., said hi to some colleagues, approached the desk, quietly said "No," and left.
Only seconds later, Clinton did the same.
In addition to providing $95.5 billion in funds for troops in Iraq and Afganistan, the bill contains provisions largely based on language written by Sen. John Warner, R-Va., which sets 18 benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet. If the Iraqi government does not meet those benchmarks, President Bush can choose to penalize the government by withholding aid.
"I think this is significant and sends a very strong message to the Iraqi leaders that the status quo is not acceptable," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
The bill also provides some other emergency agricultural funds and contains a federal minimum wage increase previously passed by both the House and Senate.
Despite their victory, there was little, if any, public crowing by Republican leaders.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that since President Bush first officially requested supplemental funds for U.S. troops in February, "Congress has voted more than 30 times on Iraqi-related measures without approving a single dime. One hundred eight days and more than 30 votes later, ... we're relieved the Democratic leadership has decided to strip a reckless and nonsensical surrender date from the bill."
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, broke down in tears just before his side won by a vote of 280-142, with every Republican except for two voting for passage.
"I didn't come here to be a congressman," Boehner said, choking back tears. "I came here to do something."
Pausing to collect himself, largely in vain, Boeher continued, "I think at the top of our list is providing for the safety and security of the American people."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on the other hand, spoke with measured control, describing the bill as "something that does not have adequate guidelines and timetables, something that does not have adequate consequences, and something that does not have my support."
Pelosi was not joined in opposing the bill by much of the House Democratic leadership. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., Caucus Chair Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., and Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, voted in favor of final passage, along with 82 other Democrats.
Pelosi was in the majority in her party, however, joined by 139 other House Democrats in opposing the bill, including the legislator who helped draft and introduced the legislation, House Approprations Committee chair David Obey, D-Wisc.
"I hate this agreement," Obey said. "I'm going to vote against the major portion of this agreement even though I negotiated it, because I think that the White House is in a cloud somewhere in terms of understanding the realities in Iraq."
Obey, who has had vitriol-filled confrontations with anti-war activists, said Democrats "are not giving up," simply facing legislative realities -- that Democrats in the Senate lack the 60 votes necessary to proceed with a debate on a bill containing timetables for U.S. troop withdrawal, and that war opponents in both the House and Senate lack the two-thirds vote necessary to override a presidential veto.
"That may not be a pleasant fact," Obey said, "but it is a reality. Opponents of the war need to face this fact just as the president and his allies need to face the fact that they are following a dead-end policy, which we will continue to make every possible effort to change."
That was not good enough for Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a founder of the Out of Iraq Caucus.
"It boggles my mind that Congress wants to give him another blank check to buy more shovels," she said.
Democrats cautioned that just because the battle over this particular bill had ended, that did not mean they were letting up. Two defense spending bills are coming down the pike and Democrats say they will try to force provisions to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq on those bills as well.
"Those of us who oppose this war will be back again and again and again and again and again until this war has ended," promised Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.