There is widespread bipartisan agreement that work on the Iraq war supplemental funding bill needs to be completed not later than Memorial Day, said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in a Thursday afternoon interview. Sen. McConnell characterized his meeting Thursday morning with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and White House chief of staff Josh Bolton (the president’s chief negotiator) as cordial adding that, “There’s a good chance that we’ve moved past the issue of surrender dates.”
McConnell spoke briefly about the possibility that there would be benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet in the hoped-for compromise bill that will be drafted this month. He said, it is important to remember that Multinational Force Commander Gen. Petraeus said that “…certain benchmarks applied to the Iraqi government could even be helpful.” McConnell declined to comment on what benchmarks could result, but said that Reid and Bolton agreed to meet again next week.
With funding for the war already delayed for months, I asked McConnell when the money crunch would become critical for the military. The Pentagon has limited authority to move money from one account to another to create a patchwork quilt of funding, but the limitations may — at some point — cause funding to run out. McConnell said, “I think it’s already become troublesome. I think they’re already shifting money out of accounts. This is not a good way to run the war. I think time is of the essence [and] we really should have gotten the job done in April.”
There is an unending list of ideas about the benchmarks that could and should be applied to the Iraqi government: what progress they can make in the coming months, and what sanctions may be applied to them if they don’t meet the milestones the congress sets. I asked McConnell about unconfirmed reports that the Iraqi parliament was taking two months of vacation — July and August — during this critical time.
“I hear that they’re not going to do that,” McConnell said. “If they are, that certainly would be the last straw for a lot of people. This government in Iraq so far has not produced anything they need to produce, beginning with the oil law followed on by the necessity for local elections, there is a whole variety of things that they know they need to do that they haven’t been able to do. There’s a growing frustration on a bipartisan basis here.”
“Taking July and August off, as you suggest, could well be the last straw for a lot of my Republican colleagues.”
Did the veto override fight — which the Dems lost so quickly in the House vote — provide a big win for the president? Sen. McConnell wasn’t ready to say the fight was won: “It’s hard to declare victory until you get the funding for the troops,” he said. “But I do think the president has won the battle over whether we want to send a memo to our enemies and tell them when we want to quit.”
I asked Sen. McConnell if Republicans were going to just stop the Senate from doing any business until the war funding measure was passed. He kinda sorta said they wouldn’t do that but didn’t rule it out, either: “We will do some other business between now and Memorial Day. I don’t think there’s any need to prevent anything from happening because I do think the new majority here is interested in getting this over before the end of May and as long as they are I think we’ll be more or less cooperative.”
The benchmark battle — what requirements will be placed on the Iraqis — is likely to be the endgame for all three sides: Democrats, Republicans and Iraqis. If the Iraqi parliament decides to take two months off while Americans are fighting and dying to give them the time to make their new government work, it will be the last straw, and not just for McConnell’s Republican colleagues.