Bush and Congress on collision course

Showdown looms over key funding Bill for Iraq war and sacking of 8 public prosecutors.

US PRESIDENT George W. Bush and a Democrat-controlled Congress are edging closer towards a collision over how far lawmakers can push his administration towards a troop pullout from Iraq.

As both sides stood their ground on an emergency funding Bill at the centre of feuding over the Iraq war, Mr Bush once again – and in his most pointed language to date – threatened to veto any measure that included a timetable for withdrawal.

“Democratic leaders in Congress are bent on using a Bill that funds our troops to make a political statement,” he said on Tuesday.

“They need to do it quickly and get it to my desk so I can veto it, and then Congress can get down to the business of funding our troops without strings and without further delay.”

Iraq is not the only battle being waged between the Bush administration and Congress. Democrats subpoenaed Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales on Tuesday for more documents before he testifies under oath before Congress next week in their escalating fight with the White House over the sacking of eight US public prosecutors.

The Gonzales saga and the acrimonious debate over Iraq are symptomatic of a weakened residency struggling with a Congress that is growing more belligerent by the day.

Mr Bush finds himself in a precarious position, especially over Iraq.

The President has asked Congress for more than US$100 billion (S$152 billion) to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this year.

Lawmakers narrowly approved funding Bills last month with variations on a pullout timetable next year, and need to agree on a single Bill to send to the White House.

If Mr Bush vetoes the Bill, it would certainly be the most high-profile case of political brinkmanship since former president Bill Clinton refused to sign a Republican-backed budget plan in 1995.

White House officials believe the public will side with President Bush even though he is politically weakened and has little credibility in Iraq.

Democrats, on the other hand, believe they have the upper hand because last November’s congressional election was seen as a referendum on the Iraq war.

The Democrats are likely to blink first in a face-off that could last weeks, if not months, as they will be hard-pressed to refuse money for American troops.

But their ultimate goal is to undercut the commander-in-chief’s role and influence by encroaching on foreign policy, the traditional preserve of the executive branch.

Ditto for domestic issues.

As congressional Democrats prepare to celebrate their first 100 days in the majority next week, they boast that they have worked more hours, passed more Bills and held more oversight hearings than Republicans did when they were in charge.

But none of their top legislative priorities has become law, and a closely divided Senate and the renewed threat of a presidential veto stand in their way.

In his first six years in office, Mr Bush vetoed only one Bill – a measure last year to allow federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research.

Democrats are again pushing to expand stem-cell research, but a Bill passed in January by a margin short of the two-thirds needed to override a veto, a threat that the White House is happy to wield.

Indeed, as the pressure mounts, the White House is fighting back.

Poking a sharp stick at the Democrats from weak ground, Mr Bush used the current congressional recess to fill three administration posts with appointees that Senate Democrats had vowed to block.

But the once imperial Bush presidency is also being forced to fight battles on several other fronts – Mr Bush’s chief spokesman Tony Snow is sidelined with cancer, and his former top strategist Matthew Dowd has turned critic. An even bigger headache is the imbroglio involving his Attorney-General.

With his approval ratings in the low 30s – an all-time low – Mr Bush’s problems go far beyond the second-term doldrums that affect so many US presidents.

As he quipped last month at an annual dinner gathering for broadcasters here, where US leaders are expected to show their humorous side: “A year ago my approval rating was in the 30s, my nominee for the Supreme Court had just withdrawn, and my vice-president had shot someone. Ah, those were the good old days.”

“A year ago my approval rating was in the 30s, my nominee for the Supreme Court had just withdrawn, and my vice-president had shot someone. Ah, those were the good old days.”
PRESIDENT BUSH, joking at a dinner last month

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