There are two things everyone needs to know about congressional Democrats' plan to give President Bush $50 billion for his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq while attaching that to a plan to wind down combat operations in Iraq by the end of 2008.
The first thing is that it will be a lot more than $50 billion, once we add in all the interest on borrowed money, long-term treatment of the wounded and the heightened price of oil. The second thing is that the definition given for ending the war is so vague that no commander-in-chief worth his secure video link would find himself held to it if he didn't want to be.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are straddling two very strong feelings in the nation, and in their party. A great many people want the war over, and would be happy to order an absolute cut-off of funds if that were what it would take to accomplish it. A great many others are loathe to do anything that would indicate, either to our troops or to our enemies, that our patience is thin and our resolve is weak. Even if they are.
The deal the Democrats have struck among themselves, and have offered to the president and to the country, is that they will vote as soon as this week to authorize $50 billion to fund the Iraq and Afghan wars into early next year, not the $200 billion the White House wants to fund the wars through 2008. And the measure will direct the beginning of a drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq right away and will have all those troops out by Dec. 15, 2008 -- well, all the troops except those needed to protect our diplomats and our remaining installations, to conduct unspecified counterterrorism missions and provide limited support of Iraqi forces.
This measure comes just as the Democrats on the Joint Economic Committee of Congress release a report figuring that, far from the $804 billion the White House says will be spent on the two wars through the end of 2008, the real cost to the American economy will approach $1.5 trillion.
That's based on a lot of guesswork, including estimates of how much of the recent hikes in the price of oil have been caused by the Iraq war and how much money is being lost to private business due to their employees being away on prolonged National Guard and Reserve deployments. Republicans are crying "politics!" with some justification, and some experts on war funding are skeptical. But there can be no doubt that a war fought on borrowed money and with overburdened troops will cost the economy many billions more than the Pentagon dares admit.
As for ordering an end to it all, which Republicans still criticize as cut-and-run defeatism, the fact is that what the Democrats are threatening isn't all that different from what the president is promising.
Bush could fulfill the directive for beginning the drawdown just by going through with his plans to remove the 30,000 troops who were installed for "the surge." And it is hard to see how any president determined to continue a combat operation couldn't claim that his plans fit under the categories this bill would allow.
Bush's veto Tuesday of a $606 domestic spending bill prompted Reid to insist there would be no war money if the withdrawal plan was rejected, but that didn't change the vague nature of the plan. It's simply an early volley in what will become a major election-year political fight.
By only pretending to finally seize their constitutional mandate to oversee the conduct of a war, leading Democrats don't do much to please the voters who just last year gave them control of Congress. But by pretending to forge ahead in a war for which he has no real plan for victory, Bush reminds those voters what made them so unhappy to begin with.