By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Policy wonks of the left and right held a panel discussion at the National Press Club yesterday to ask the question: "Is Politics Brain-Dead?" Up on Capitol Hill, Congress was providing some clues.
Confronted with the tough issues -- Iraq, immigration, the minimum wage -- lawmakers weighed their options and then went with their default position: exchange taunts.
Not quite six minutes after the Senate chaplain prayed yesterday for God to use senators "as agents of your grace," Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) started the sloganeering. "If we break our promise and cut and run, as some would have us do, the implications could be catastrophic," he said. In case anybody missed that, he also said "we can't cut and run" twice on CBS News and issued a follow-up press release titled: "FRIST DENOUNCES DEMOCRATS' PLAN TO CUT AND RUN."
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) added: "If we cut and run in Iraq, what we will have done is prove what Osama bin Laden said."
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), an expert windsurfer, had heard quite enough of this nautical term. "Cut and run, cut and run, cut and run, cut and run -- that's their phrase," he told Don Imus. "My plan is not cut and run. Their plan is lie and die."
Fox News was on the story. "John Kerry calls it 'lie and die,' " anchor Bill Hemmer told Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "What do you say to that?"
"I think the sound-bite war is not going to be an effective way to fight the war," the sensible senator said.
But Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman had a different view. "There's a debate going on within the Democratic Party," he said on CNN. "Some are saying we need to cut and run, others are saying we need to cut and jog, and still others are saying we need to cut and walk."
Mehlman's metaphor may have been muddled -- "cut and run" involves anchor cable and sail lashings, not the human leg -- but he had lawmakers' sentiments right. If Democrats were cutting and running from Iraq, Republicans were cutting and running from a minimum-wage increase and immigration legislation.
First thing yesterday morning, reporters were summoned to House Speaker Dennis Hastert's office, where GOP leaders were huddling. When the lawmakers emerged, they announced that, rather than having a conference with the Senate to negotiate compromise immigration legislation, they would hold another round of hearings.
Reporters pointed out that the delay meant that immigration legislation, so recently a priority for Congress, would probably not happen this year. And the GOP leaders did little to discourage that view. "We're not foreclosing the possibility," was all Rep. Deborah Pryce (Ohio) would promise, adding that this would postpone the issue at least until fall.
Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the majority whip, concurred: "I don't know how likely it is."
Cut and run! "The Republican House wants to defeat the immigration bill," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid (Nev.) crowed in front of the cameras. "Is this part of the Orwellian message we continually get out of this administration?"
Republicans quickly tried to change the subject from their immigration cut and run to the Democrats' cut and run on Iraq. House Majority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) held a news conference and declared that Democrats have "no plan at all to confront the real threat of terrorism and to achieve victory in a global war on terror."
But David Rogers, a Wall Street Journal reporter and Vietnam veteran, had prepared an ambush for Boehner. "In Vietnam, they used to put us out in these fire support bases and hope we would get attacked," he said. "Is that what you are doing? You are putting people in Iraq and hoping they get attacked so you can bring out the terrorists?"
"No, no," Boehner protested.
Over on the Senate floor, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) was trying to insulate the party from the Republicans' cut-and-run charges on Iraq. He proposed a resolution "to express the sense of Congress that the government of Iraq should not grant amnesty to persons known to have attacked, killed or wounded members of the armed forces of the United States."
It was purely symbolic: The Iraqi government says it will not grant amnesty, and the minister who suggested it to The Washington Post last week resigned the next day. But the Iraq debate was all about symbolism, and Nelson's proposal was adopted, 79 to 19.
Next, when Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced a proposal to increase the minimum wage, and Republicans introduced an alternative, Democrats didn't even pretend that legislation might be produced. "Both will fail," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said with confidence. So why bring them up? "It allows both sides to proclaim a modicum of victory."
As evening approached, Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) visited the Senate press gallery to talk about their proposal, to be introduced today, calling for the beginning of a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
The inevitable question arose: Won't this immediately be branded "cut and run"?
"The wording is very clear: It's not a cut-and-run strategy," Levin protested. "Our amendment is not in any sense a cut-and-run amendment."
Added Reed: "Throughout this whole endeavor, there's been more sloganizing than planning." He suggested that Democrats come up with a taunt of their own for Republicans: "I guess their position is 'we're there forever.' "
Before nightfall, Democrats had drafted a new press release. Title: "Bush Republicans Plan to be in Iraq Forever."