The US death toll in Iraq now stands at more than 3,200.

The first 3,000 of those deaths can reasonably be said to be the responsibility of President Bush. He, Vice President Cheney and their aides manipulated intelligence in order to frame a case for invading and occupying Iraq. As their deceits began to be exposed, they sought to punish those–such as former Ambassador Joe Wilson–who tried to tell the truth to Congress and the American people.

When that truth became clear, the people elected a new Congress. Last November, Democrats were given control of the US House and Senate. Their mandate was as simple as it was clear: Bring the troops home in a smart, responsible and rapid fashion. And they had the ability to do so, as the Constitution clearly gives Congress the authority to use the power of the purse and other means to conclude an unwise and unnecessary war.

Unfortunately, the Democrats have not moved with the swiftness or the effectiveness that polls suggest the American people want. Instead, they have squandered time and energy on meaningless “non-binding resolutions.”

As a result, the more than 200 US troops who have died since control of Congress shifted can reasonably be said to be the responsibility of both the Bush Administration and the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate.

As we mark the fourth anniversary of the most insane military misadventure in American history–yes, even worse than James K. Polk’s invasion of Mexico for the purpose of spreading slavery–there is now more than enough blame to go around for the death and destruction that has not merely killed thousands of Americans but that has left hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis dead, emptied the US and Iraqi treasuries into the pockets of unscrupulous contractors and corrupt politicians, and done severe harm to the reputation of the United States as an honest player on the world stage.

It happens that the anniversary coincides with a critical test for members of Congress. As soon as this week, a vote could be held in the House on the question of whether to fund the war for another year–at a cost not merely of roughly $100 billion in additional tax dollars but also of thousands of additional American lives and tens of thousands of additional Iraqi lives.

It is not simplistic to suggest that a vote to continue funding the war as it is currently being conducted is a vote for more death, more destruction and more threats to the stability of the Middle East and the world. The fact that a funding plan may be sponsored by Democrats, and that those Democrats may claim it contains “benchmarks” and “time lines,” does not change the reality that any measure that authorizes the president to carry on in pretty much the manner he chooses guarantees that this will not be the last anniversary of the U.S. presence in Iraq. Indeed, when we consider that money moves relatively slowly through the funding pipeline, it becomes evident that this is not just a vote on funding the war for another year–it is a vote on funding the war through the end of George Bush’s presidency.

So what should we make of a Democratic plan that, while it does not give the president everything he wants, does give him the money he needs to carry on for another year, and perhaps longer?

Let’s begin by accepting that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, means well. She voted in 2OO2 against giving Bush permission to start the war, and she knows that she holds the speakership in large part because, in 2OO6, Americans trusted Democrats to end the war.

Let’s also accept that Pelosi believes she is advancing the most potent “anti-war” measure that is politically or practically possible. After all, Washington is a town where delusions pass for reality all the time.

If we give Pelosi the full benefit of the doubt, then the task at hand is easily defined: Progressives must force the speaker to recognize that the spending bill as it is currently configured is unacceptable.

Is that an unreasonable message? Is it too much to ask that this bill be made better?

Let’s ask some basic questions:

Can the bill be improved? Yes. Pelosi and her allies have already altered the legislation dramatically since it was first proposed. Most of the alterations have been for the worse, but they confirm that the measure is open to alteration.

Do anti-war Democrats have the power to force improvements? Yes. The political reality of the moment is that Pelosi needs every Democratic vote she can get in order to pass a bill on the war. If progressives send a clear signal from the grassroots that this measure needs to be toughened up–with language that prevents Bush from expanding the war and sets a clear timeline for withdrawal–and if anti-war Democrats in the House get the message and demand those changes, Pelosi and others in the House Democratic leadership will have no choice but to consider making changes.

Can a spending bill of this kind be made perfect? Probably not. Perfection is not what progressives ought to be holding out for. Everyone understands that the war will not end immediately. Any exit strategy will be implemented over time. Any withdrawal will be complicated by factors on the ground in Baghdad and by politics in Washington. It is reasonable to suggest that an improved spending bill might still have imperfections. It is reasonable, as well, to recognize that the bill the House passes will not be implemented. Rather, it is a negotiating position from which the Congress can begin a discussion with the White House.

President Bush recognizes this. He and his allies are making a lot of noise about how bad they think the Pelosi bill is because they are already in negotiation mode. They want to force Congress to remove any strings.

Unfortunately, the Pelosi bill contains so few strings that, in the process of negotiation that is to come, the administration will get what it wants.

The only way for Congress to force the president’s hand is by making far more specific demands.

That’s the bottom line: The problem with the Pelosi bill is not that it is a flawed attempt to end the war. The problem is that the measure’s flaws make it unlikely that the war will end before Bush’s presidency does.

That’s unacceptable.

That’s why it matters to demand a better bill–a bill that proposes to end the war rapidly and reasonably.

Tonight, across America, candlelight vigils will be held to mark the anniversary of the start of the war and to call for its swift conclusion. The message of these vigils will be unambiguous to all who participate, and to those who see images of them in newspapers and on television: Bring the Troops Home!

But the message will have to be amplified for Congress. Groups such as Progressive Democrats of America and Peace Action have been organizing campaigns to call Congress and press for a plan that guarantees there will not have to be vigils marking the fifth anniversary of the US presence in Iraq. Those calls ought to go to all members of Congress, including those with good track records of opposing the war.

In Washington, the pressure to fund the war is intense.

It is time for Americans to counter that pressure with a clear message that this is not a time to give George Bush all the money he wants to wage the war as he chooses.

Only by doing so can the people force the opposition party in Congress to advance legislation that sets a clear time line for bringing the troops home, and that establishes spending priorities that guarantee the implementation of that time line.

The message should be blunt: Anti-war Democrats ought not merely hand their votes over to the party leadership.

In the 196Os, when Democrats in the White House and the leadership of the U.S. Senate urged Senator Gaylord Nelson to vote to fund the expansion of the war in Vietnam, the Wisconsin Democrat refused.

“I need my conscience more than the President needs my vote,” said Nelson.

If anti-war Democrats adopt the Gaylord Nelson standard and make it clear to Nancy Pelosi that she will not have their votes until she gives them a plan to bring the troops home, they will have a chance to keep their consciences and perhaps get a better bill.

On the other hand, if anti-war Democrats give away their votes without making such a demand, they will find that they have surrendered not only their consciences but any realistic chance to speed the end of the war.


John Nichols’ new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders’ Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson hails it as a “nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe ‘heroic medicine’ that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to ‘reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'”