Democrats in Congress are heading into a game of chicken with the Bush White House akin to the Gingrich-Clinton government shutdown battle of 1995-96. The roles are reversed this time so the Republicans are likely to prevail.
The consequences will be lasting. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will find their party shattered. Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will be forced to choose sides in their party's schism.
The game will unfold predictably. The House and the Senate will compromise on the differences in their legislation funding the Iraq War; the end product, carrying poison-pill language that sets a deadline for troop withdrawal, will go to the White House to face an inevitable presidential veto. The Democrats' override attempt will fail and a deadlock will ensue.
Then the Democrats will threaten to withhold funding for the war in Iraq unless the White House agrees to some form of deadline. The Bush administration will reply that it will never agree to a schedule for troop withdrawal - and both sides will glare at the other across an abyss.
But Bush will, inevitably, win the game of chicken. Pelosi and Reid have too much sense to be caught denying funding to troops in combat. Bush will make the price of obstinacy too great for the Democrats to bear.
Nobody will want to be in the position of cutting off funding and appearing to undermine the troops during a war.
But the consequences for Pelosi of a retreat will be serious: She'll leave behind her the party's left who will never vote for funding without also mandating withdrawal. Pelosi will have to scramble and craft a majority with a combination of Republican votes and support from the center of her own party.
The speaker will probably wind up having to vote against the majority of her Democratic members. That spectacle won't be healthy for her future authority or control.
If the Republicans are smart, they will let Pelosi hang by her own rope and will force her to break her party apart by twisting arms for every last vote to pass a funding bill.
Inadvertently forced into triangulation, Pelosi and Reid will be the unwilling instruments of a schism in their party from which it may not recover until after the 2008 election. The fault lines between those willing to fund the war without a withdrawal amendment and those who insist on a date certain for a pullout will define a growing split within the party akin to the one that drove students into the streets of Chicago outside the party convention in 1968.
In the presidential race, Clinton and Obama will face moments of truth in deciding which side of the schism to occupy. They won't be able to fudge their positions any longer. Hillary, in particular, will have to come down for the war or against it with lasting consequences for her candidacy.
The left will not forgive a vote to fund the war without requiring a withdrawal date but the general electorate will not look kindly on pulling back funds during a war.
For his part, President Bush needs to stand firm as this process unfolds. The split the funding resolution will catalyze in the Democratic Party may be his party's only hope of hanging onto the White House in 2008. He should resist calls for compromise, since any halfway solution or diplomatic wording that could appeal to both sides will rescue the Democrats from the horns of their dilemma and run most or all of the risks for the troops and the mission in Iraq as the current bills present.
Bush should demand a clean appropriations bill or guarantee a veto. If he doesn't flinch and congressional Republicans don't defect, it will be bad news for the Democrats.