By Jonathan Weisman and Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 17, 2006
The House voted 256 to 153 yesterday to back President Bush's policies in Iraq after two days of passionate and partisan debate that saw Republicans try to recast an unpopular conflict as part of a broader war on terrorism and totalitarianism.
Forty-two Democrats bucked their leadership to join a virtually united Republican Party and to declare 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.
Three Republicans -- Reps. Ron Paul (Tex.), John J. Duncan Jr. (Tenn.) and Jim Leach (Iowa) -- joined 149 Democrats and one independent to oppose the resolution. Five others -- three Democrats and two Republicans -- voted "present" in protest.
Public opinion polls continue to show that the Iraq war is deeply unpopular, even in the wake of the death of al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. But, convinced they cannot avoid the issue in an election year, Republicans tried to put Democrats on the defensive with the first extended debate on the war since Congress authorized the use of force nearly four years ago.
House Republicans sought to frame the conflict in the broadest possible terms, linking it not only to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the war on terrorism but also to what they see as the Clinton administration's repeated failures to act after terrorist attacks in the 1990s.
"The American public deserves to hear how their elected leaders will respond to international terrorism and those enemies who seek to destroy our American way of life. Will we fight or will we retreat?" asked House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). "Let me be clear: Those who say this is a war of choice are nothing more than wrong. This is a war of necessity."
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said the question before the House was whether "the global war on totalitarianism is worth fighting."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) countered: "Republicans in Congress continue to try to mislead the American people by suggesting a link between the war in Iraq and the war on terror. They are distinct . . . and efforts to portray one as part of the other are a disservice to the truth and to the men and women fighting in Baghdad, Kirkuk and Ramadi."
"We've become the enemy. We've given a microphone to people like Zarqawi," said Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.), the hawkish Democrat who rocked Capitol Hill last year by calling for a rapid withdrawal of military forces. "We support the troops. It's the policy we don't support."
For much of the past four years, House Republicans have avoided a serious debate on Iraq. The Senate, not the House, held hearings on the abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison. The Senate, not the House, descended into bitter debate last year over an amendment by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to ban torture at U.S. detention facilities. And the Senate, not the House, pushed into law a provision declaring 2006 a "year of significant transition" in Iraq.
But with midterm elections less than five months away, House leaders -- driven in part by dissenting voices in their party -- decided that their members needed to confront the Iraq issue directly.
"I think all members are going to have to express themselves on this issue as the year goes on. There is no way of avoiding it," Boehner said.
But Republicans wanted to air it out under the most favorable circumstances, debating over 10 hours a leadership-tailored resolution that would not be subject to amendment and would not face competing policy statements. By drafting a resolution that supported U.S. troops, emphasized triumphing over terrorism and called for victory in Iraq, GOP leaders had constructed a measure that was "hard not to support," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.).
After the vote, Republicans crowed that they had held ranks while highlighting Democratic division. Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said, "We are pleased that 42 Democrats defied their leadership and stood with House Republicans to support both our troops and their mission to win the global war on terror."
The 42 Democrats were largely Southerners and members in Midwestern and Western swing districts, but they included a few surprises, such as Reps. Howard L. Berman of suburban Los Angeles and Stephen Lynch of Boston.
"I voted 'aye,' notwithstanding the partisan and cynical motivations of the Republican sponsors of the resolution, the patently unfair process by which it was brought before the House, and the grossly distorted recitation of events leading up to the present," Berman said.
But the Democratic defectors were about half the 81 who voted in October 2002 to authorize the use of force, an indication, some said, that the potency of the issue is defusing even in swing districts. Hawkish Democrats who had voted for the invasion, such as Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee; Rep Norman D. Dicks (Wash.), a top defense appropriator; and Harold E. Ford Jr., a candidate for Tennessee's open Senate seat, felt free to vote against the resolution. Ford was immediately attacked by the National Republican Senatorial Committee for what it called a vote to "cut and run."
"A few people are getting some backbone, and the backbone they're getting is from the people," said Paul, a longtime opponent of the war.
A Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found that Zarqawi's death did not alter the perceptions of a majority, 53 percent, that the Iraq war is a mistake. Fifty-four percent of those polled said they would back a congressional candidate who favored pulling all U.S. troops out of Iraq within 12 months. Only 32 percent said they would vote against that position. "The public, in my estimation, has reached a firm, fixed decision about Iraq, and it comes down to 'Let's find a way to bring the troops home,' "said Peter Hart, who helped conduct the poll.
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster with close ties to House Democrats, highlighted the complexities in public opinion. Some traditional Republican lines, such as the charge that Democrats "don't get what it's like in a post-9/11 world" or "We're bringing democracy to Iraq," are falling flat in focus groups, Lake said. But she said voters do respond well to a GOP favorite heard often in the past two days on Capitol Hill: "We'll either fight terrorists there or we'll fight them here."