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.).
Vice President Cheney weighed in, taking note of Kerry's statement earlier this week urging fellow Democrats who joined him in authorizing force in 2002 to acknowledge that the war is a mistake. "I'm not surprised at John Kerry switching his position yet again," Cheney said on Sean Hannity's radio talk show. Kerry is charging "that somehow he was misled," the vice president said. "He wasn't misled. He saw the same intelligence all the rest of us saw. He knew what an evil actor Saddam Hussein was."
Frist used the brief Senate debate to say that a substantial troop withdrawal by Dec. 31 would amount to "cutting and running" and would prompt Iraq to renew its pursuit of "weapons of mass destruction." Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) replied that "two things don't exist in Iraq: weapons of mass destruction, and cutting and running."
Reid spokesman Jim Manley said Democrats will propose language next week calling on Bush to "begin the phased redeployment of U.S. troops this year."
Senate Democrats tried to gain the upper hand in yesterday's debate by seizing on a Washington Post article reporting that Iraq's new prime minister is considering limited amnesty for guerrillas who had attacked U.S. troops. Two Democrats who are running in competitive states this fall -- Sens. Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Robert Menendez (N.J.) -- introduced a "sense of the Senate resolution" calling on Bush to strongly oppose the amnesty idea.
Republicans called the effort a pointless diversion, with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office having accepted the resignation of the aide who had described the possible amnesty plan.
Central to the House Republicans' argument was the much-disputed link between the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq. "We in this Congress must show the same steely resolve as those men and women on United Flight 93; the same sense of duty as the first responders who headed up the stairs of the twin towers," said Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "We must stand firm in our commitment to fight terrorism and the evil it inflicts throughout the world."
"It is a choice between resolve and retreat," said Rep. Heather A. Wilson (N.M.), one of the most vulnerable Republicans in a swing district that has turned against the war.
Democrats criticized what they called nearly four years of congressional refusal to exercise oversight powers and to challenge the administration's Iraq policies. "Congress cannot be infinitely passive," said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.).
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said: "This Republican Congress sat and watched the president make mistake after mistake after mistake. . . . You have adopted an approach of 'see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil' with abandon."
Party lines stiffened during the debate. Even Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest (Md.), one of five Republicans who signed a Democratic resolution demanding that the president develop an exit strategy, was content to simply implore his colleagues to "have a powerful sense of urgency to end the war and end the war successfully."
The debates played out less than five months before elections that will be colored by what recent polls have shown to be an unpopular war that has dragged down voter confidence in Bush and the GOP-led Congress.
But Republican strategists say their party can still take a page from Bush's 2004 reelection campaign and use the debate to portray Democrats as weak on national defense. GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio said Democrats "have been badly outmaneuvered" by the White House and GOP leaders in capitalizing on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's death. "A couple of weeks ago, all the focus was on divisions in the GOP over immigration. Now it's Democratic division over the war and national security."
Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks contributed to this report.