Parties Face Off Over Iraq War in 11-Hour Debate

"We're not making progress," said Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a Marine Corps veteran. (By Bradley C. Bower -- Associated Press)
By Jonathan Weisman and Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 16, 2006

Congress plunged into a wide-ranging debate over the origins and conduct of the war in Iraq yesterday, with each party excoriating the other for alleged weakness and complacency about the stakes involved.

As the Pentagon announced the 2,500th death of a U.S. service member in the conflict, the House embarked on its first extended discussion of the war since Congress authorized force nearly four years ago. More than 140 lawmakers took the floor to applaud or attack President Bush's prosecution of the war in an 11-hour debate scheduled to last until nearly midnight.

The debate will culminate today with a vote on a Republican-drafted resolution declaring that the United States must complete "the mission to create a sovereign, free, secure and united Iraq" without setting "an arbitrary date for the withdrawal or redeployment" of U.S. troops.

In the Senate, Republicans tried to put Democrats on the record as supporting or opposing an amendment -- drafted by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) but submitted for a vote by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) -- to demand a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, pushed Republicans to condemn a proposal by the newly formed Iraqi government to offer limited amnesty to insurgents who had killed U.S. troops.

Though the day's rhetoric was often partisan in tone, the discontent over the status quo in Iraq was evident on both sides. Dozens of lawmakers spoke emotionally -- recriminations mixed with appeals to patriotism -- on how the nation should proceed in the three-year-old conflict that has become more protracted, deadly and complex than most of them had expected at its outset.

The votes will not bind the administration, but the debates had the effect of putting scores of elected officials on the record concerning the nation's most pressing issue at a moment when the approaching midterm elections are putting control of both the House and the Senate in play.

House Republicans took the offensive, repeatedly asserting that Democrats have adopted a "defeatist" policy of retreat that would embolden international terrorists and imperil national security. Their position was bolstered by a 74-page document drafted by the White House and distributed by the Pentagon, replete with talking points, quotations and timelines to back administration policy. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) called the document "an affront to the American people."

"We're not making progress," said Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a Marine Corps veteran who has emerged as his party's leading opponent of the war. He said Iraqis are fighting a low-grade civil war in which U.S. soldiers should not be involved. "They're fighting each other, and our troops are caught in between," he said.

"We make progress every day," countered Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who contended that the only people who want the U.S. military to leave Iraq are terrorists and "some politicians." Looking at Murtha, he added: "Don't get confused about every little problem that happens."

In the Senate, Republicans were also spoiling for a chance to depict Democrats as soft on the war, but Democrats largely thwarted the effort. GOP senators wanted a vote on language recently drafted by Kerry calling for nearly all U.S. troops to be withdrawn from Iraq by the year's end. But Kerry, his party's 2004 presidential nominee, surprised the Republicans by declining to offer the language as an amendment to a defense authorization bill, after colleagues had urged him to consider possible revisions.

To force a debate and a vote, McConnell, the GOP whip, introduced Kerry's language as his own, knowing that all Senate Republicans and most Democrats would vote against it. Democrats objected when Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) called the measure "Kerry's amendment." Kerry said the maneuver led to "a fibbing, fictitious vote."

The Senate voted 93 to 6 to reject the amendment. The six Democrats who voted against killing it were Kerry, Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.), Russell Feingold (Wis.), Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.).

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