When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her allies in the chamber’s Democratic leadership initially accepted that spending legislation designed to outline an Iraq exit strategy should also include a provision barring the president from attacking Iran without congressional approval, they opened up a monumental discussion about presidential war powers.

As such, the decision by Pelosi and her allies to rewrite their Iraq legislation to exclude the statement regarding the need for congressional approval of any military assault on the neighboring country of Iran sends the worst possible signal to the White House.

It is not too much to suggest that Pelosi disastrous misstep could haunt her and the Congress for years to come.

Here’s how the Speaker messed up:

The Democratic proposal for a timeline to withdraw troops from Iraq included a provision that would have required President Bush to seek congressional approval before using military force in Iran. It was an entirely appropriate piece of the Iraq proposal, as the past experiences of U.S. involvement in southeast Asia and Latin America has well illustrated that when wars bleed across borders it becomes significantly more difficult to end them. Thus, fears about the prospect that Bush might attack Iran are legitimately related to the debate about how and when to end the occupation of Iraq.

Unfortunately, Pelosi is so desperate to advance her flawed spending legislation that she is willing to bargain with any Democrat about any part of the proposal.

Under pressure from some conservative members of her caucus, and from lobbyists associated with neoconservative groupings that want war with Iran and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC), Pelosi agreed on Monday to strip the Iran provision from the spending bill that has become the House leadership’s primary vehicle for challenging the administration’s policies in the region.

One of the chief advocates for eliminating the Iran provision, Nevada Democrat Shelley Berkley, said she wanted it out of the legislation because she wants to maintain the threat of U.S. military action as a tool in seeking to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. “It would take away perhaps the most important negotiating tool that the U.S. has when it comes to Iran,” explained Berkley.

The problem with Berkley’s “reasoning” — if it can be called that — is this: Nothing in the provision that had been included in the spending bill would have prevented Bush from threatening Iran. Nothing in the provision would have prevented war with Iran. It merely reminded the president that, before launching such an attack, he would need to obey the Constitutional requirement that he seek a declaration of war.

By first including the provision and then removing it, Pelosi and her aides have given Bush more of an opening to claim that he does not require Congressional approval.

Again and again, the Bush administration has seized any and every opening to claim powers that were never accorded the executive branch by the Constitution or the Congress. Remember that this administration has sought to justify a massive, unregulated domestic spying program by claiming authority under narrow legislation that was passed permitting the president to respond to the September 11, 2OO1, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Never mind that no mention of such spying was included in the 2OO1 legislation; the fact that it was not explicitly barred gave the administration all the room it required to claim the power to disregard the Constitution and the rule of law.

By stripping the Iran provision from the legislation that is now under consideration by Congress, Pelosi has handed Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney — no believer he is the separation of powers — exactly what they want. They can and will say that, when the question of whether Congress should require the administration to seek Congressional approval for an attack on Iran, Pelosi chose not to pursue the matter.

Anyone who thinks that Bush and Cheney will fail to exploit this profound misstep by Pelosi has not been paying attention for the past six years. The speaker has erred, dramatically and dangerously.

Pelosi should reverse her decision and restore the Iran provision to the legislation. It is the only way to check and balance an administration that stands ready to exploit every opening it is given by a naive and inept Congress.


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.'”