By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
The House plunged into a heated, partisan debate yesterday on President Bush's war policy, with Democrats challenging lawmakers to take a stand against the deployment of more troops to Iraq while Republicans accused their political foes of emboldening the enemy with their symbolic resolution.
Democrats won control of Congress last fall in a political backlash against Bush's Iraq policy, and yesterday they decried a war they said was illegitimately launched and has been badly managed, with devastating consequences. They were helped by three newly elected Democratic lawmakers who were propelled into politics by their military experience in Iraq.
"We stand together to tell this administration that we are against the escalation, and to say with one voice that Congress will no longer be a blank check to the president's failed policies," said freshman Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D-Pa.), who was a captain with the 82nd Airborne Division in Baghdad. "The president's plan to send more of our best and bravest to die refereeing a civil war in Iraq is wrong."
Republicans focused on loftier themes, warning darkly about ceding Iraq to Islamic radicals who are bent on destroying not only the Middle East but also the American way of life. "We are engaged in a global war now for our very way of life," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). "And every drop of blood that's been spilled in defense of liberty and freedom from the American Revolution to this very moment is for nothing if we're unwilling to stand up and fight this threat."
Scores of Democratic and Republican lawmakers took to the floor on the first of what is likely to be three days of intense debate on a tightly worded resolution opposing Bush's decision to deploy more than 20,000 additional U.S. combat troops to Iraq.
The resolution affirms Congress's support for "the members of the United States Armed Forces who are serving or who have served bravely and honorably in Iraq" before breaking with the president's new strategy.
The debate is expected to extend late into the night today and tomorrow before culminating in a House vote Friday. It is not the first extended House debate on the war, but it is the first since the invasion of Iraq nearly four years ago that is likely to conclude with a vote against the president.
"In a few days and in fewer than 100 words, we will take our country in a new direction on Iraq," pledged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "Friday's vote will signal whether the House has heard the American people: No more blank checks for President Bush on Iraq."
The House debate unfolded in an orderly, dignified fashion, in stark contrast to last week's tumult in the Senate, where Republicans blocked even a debate on the war resolution. Under House rules that heavily favor the majority, Democrats set the terms of the debate and even denied Republicans the opportunity to introduce an alternative measure. By the end of the week, only the Democratic resolution will come to a vote in the House, despite party leaders' pledges last week to give Republicans at least one vote.
The Democratic resolution is not binding on the administration, and both sides of the debate agreed that the real fight will come next month, when Democrats are to move to attach to a $100 billion war spending bill binding language that would limit future deployments to Iraq and begin to bring troops home.
Still, passage of the resolution this week would be a stinging repudiation of Bush's strategy to try to put down sectarian violence in Baghdad by bolstering troop levels, and Republicans struggled to discredit the importance of the measure.
Boehner denounced it "a political charade lacking both the seriousness and the gravity of the issue that it's meant to represent," even as he called the resolution "the first step toward abandoning Iraq."
House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) decried "a rather toothless 97 words" that "does nothing to help win the war" and "doesn't do anything to help stop it, either." Yet minutes later, he warned that its passage "puts us one day closer to handing militant Islamists a safe haven the size of California."
In a formal letter to GOP colleagues, Reps. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.) and John Shadegg (Ariz.) encouraged lawmakers to avoid discussing the resolution and focus instead on a wider war against Islamic radicals.
"This debate should not be about the surge or its details," they wrote. "This debate should not even be about the Iraq war to date, mistakes that have been made, or whether we can, or cannot, win militarily. If we let Democrats force us into a debate on the surge or the current situation in Iraq, we lose."
Democrats, torn between their liberal wing wanting binding action to stop the war and their more cautious conservatives, were no less conflicted. Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (Calif.) promised that passage of the resolution would be only a first step toward ending what he called "this nightmare." But he also put Friday's vote in the starkest possible terms.
"This simple resolution will establish the first marker," Lantos said. "Those who want to draw down the U.S. presence will be on one side of that marker. Those who want to take further steps into the quagmire will be on the other."
Democratic leaders showcased the three veterans of the Iraq war in a bid to enhance the credibility of their case. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) brought to the debate the credentials of a retired admiral who commanded an aircraft-carrier battle group in Iraq. He condemned "the continuing use of our national treasure in what is an inconclusive, open-ended involvement within a country where the long-term benefits do not match what we need to reap."
Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) fretted over the National Guardsmen he taught in high school and then trained for deployment to the war.
Said Murphy: "We often hear from our colleagues on the other side that the only way to support the troops is to blindly support the president. I ask anyone to look at Admiral Joe Sestak, a man who was responsible for the safety and security of 15,000 sailors and Marines, and tell him that he does not support the troops. I ask anyone to look at Sergeant Major Tim Walz -- a man who served his country for 24 years in the Minnesota National Guard as a noncommissioned officer, the backbone of our Army -- and tell him he does not support our troops."
"We are the troops," he concluded, "and we oppose the president's escalation of troops."
Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.