At issue is whether formally declaring a time limit for U.S. military engagement in Iraq will embolden insurgents and terrorists, or will force Iraq's government to come to terms with the country's warring factions and thus lay a foundation for a better future.
The question has taken center stage as the Democratically-controlled Congress works on an emergency bill to cover the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A House bill sets a September, 2008 deadline for withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Iraq, while a Senate version urges a withdrawal by next March. Democratic Senator Joseph Biden spoke on the "Fox News Sunday" television program:
"What we are saying to the president in the Senate bill is, 'Mr. President, you are going to get the money. You can keep troops in Iraq. But you cannot have them in the midst of a civil war. You have to have them doing what they are supposed to do: train Iraqi forces.'"
The two legislative chambers will have to work out a unified bill before it can be sent to President Bush. But the president has promised to veto any legislation that sets a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq - and rightly so, according to Republican Senator Mitch McConnell.
"Why is it going to be vetoed? Because it has a specific date when we are going to leave Iraq. It is like sending a memo to the enemy, giving them the date that you are going to give up. I think that our Democratic Party friends have decided that the war is lost. They do not have the courage to vote against the money war funding, which is the only way to end the war. So, instead, what they do is try to make it more difficult for our troops to succeed."
Mr. McConnell, who also spoke on "Fox News Sunday", noted that the spending bill contains numerous items unrelated to the war effort, including tens of millions of dollars to support American spinach growers, peanut farmers and other special interests.
President Bush made a similar complaint in his weekly radio address Saturday. Democrat Joseph Biden acknowledged additional spending items in the legislation, but pointed out that many measures, including funding for recovery efforts from Hurricane Katrina, are entirely defensible.
Mr. Biden's main point, however, is that the current situation in Iraq is unacceptable, and positive change will not occur while the United States maintains an open-ended military commitment.
"Does anybody think we are going to have 150,000 troops in Iraq in March of 2008 without a fundamental change in what is going on in the ground in Iraq? The American people are not going to put up with that. So you have to change the mission to get a political solution in Iraq. That is what we are saying."
Democrats say, if President Bush vetoes the spending bill, then he will bear responsibility for cutting off funding to U.S. troops in battle. White House officials counter that the Democratically-controlled Congress will be to blame if it sends a bill it knows the White House will veto.
Legislative action on military funding is unlikely until Congress returns from recess next week. Pentagon officials say a new infusion of money is urgently needed, noting that funds for the war effort will run out by the middle of April. But many Democrats say the military can continue to function for months to come.