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For the GOP, Taking the War Out of the War Debate

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, the man in charge of Republican strategy in this week's great debate on Iraq, was a study in nervous energy as he waited to speak on the House floor yesterday.

He paced behind the back row. He cracked his neck to the left and right. He wrung his hands. He buttoned, unbuttoned and rebuttoned his suit jacket. He cracked his neck some more, checked his BlackBerry, rocked on his heels, coughed, stroked his chin, folded and unfolded his arms, coughed, scratched behind his ear, swallowed heavily, and coughed again.

There was good reason for this anxiety. As head of the House Republican Conference, the 32-year-old redhead is leading his caucus into a public-opinion meat grinder: supporting President Bush's increase of U.S. troops in Iraq, against the wishes of more than 60 percent of Americans. Worse, he is leading them with a pair of somewhat contradictory arguments: (a) that the Democrats' resolution opposing Bush's Iraq buildup is a meaningless gesture, and (b) that the Democrats' resolution will cause the end of civilization as we know it.

"This is a rather toothless 97 words," Putnam began in his floor speech, calling the proposal "a narrow nonbinding resolution that misses the bigger picture." Minutes later, he changed his view. "The majority would have us consider a resolution that puts us one day closer to handing militant Islamists a safe haven the size of California."

So which one is it: toothless or catastrophic?

Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) wasn't sure. In his floor speech, he called the resolution "nonbinding" six times, labeling the resolution "a political charade lacking both the seriousness and the gravity of the issue that it's meant to represent." And yet, he also thought the resolution "is the first step toward abandoning Iraq by cutting off funding for our troops that are in harm's way."

Neither had Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) found harmony between the competing talking points. "This resolution just says enough not to say anything at all," he judged. In another breath, however, he called it a "first step to cutting off funding for the dangerous mission our troops face" and a debate that "bolsters those radical terrorists whose sole goal is to destroy America."

The Republican complaints brought to mind the Woody Allen joke about two old ladies at a Catskills resort. "One of 'em says, 'Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.' The other one says, 'Yeah, I know, and such small portions.' "

Republicans knew they had a weak hand to play as the House began its three-day debate on Iraq and whether to support Bush's 20,000-troop "surge." "The debate should not be about the surge or its details," Republican Reps. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.) and John Shadegg (Ariz.) wrote to colleagues in a letter intercepted by Democrats. "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."

To help Republicans with the task of conducting an Iraq debate without talking about Iraq, Putnam set up a "war room" in the Longworth office building to provide research and debate material, parliamentary experts, and a "rapid response system."

But when two reporters arrived at the war room yesterday afternoon, the occupants were deep in a bunker. "I apologize," the receptionist announced after checking with the war room. "They just started a meeting."

Ah, a "meeting." The reporters found a back door to the war room that was open. Inside, four men sat quietly at their desks, watching the debate on TV.

The bunker mentality went beyond the war room. While Republicans from competitive districts watched on television, their colleagues from safe seats did battle with Democrats on the House floor. Of the first 16 Republican speakers, only three won reelection in 2006 with less than 60 percent of the vote, and none won with less than 56 percent.

Those who did brave the hostile climate to come to the House floor preferred to talk of wars other than the one underway in Iraq.

Blunt (67 percent of the vote in November) chose Vietnam. "President Johnson was criticized a generation ago, and still today, for choosing bombing sites in Vietnam," he argued. "But his actions made infinitely more sense than this."

Boehner (64 percent) opted for the Civil War. "Surrounded by personal and political rivals, Lincoln could have given up," the minority leader said. "He could have recalled the Union forces and sent them home. But he didn't."

Like many speakers, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida (62 percent) saw echoes of the Second World War. "The threat of Hitler did not appear suddenly out of a vacuum," she said, in front of a poster of a pilot in uniform.

Putnam (69 percent) opted for the war in the Pacific. "It's easy enough to go back and list all the disappointments we've had in Iraq," he said. "But it's like focusing on one jungle, on one atoll on the march to Tokyo over 60 years ago."

A dazzling debate it wasn't. At the start, there were 75 members of Congress on the floor. By the time Putnam spoke about half an hour later, the number was down to 36; before long, the chamber returned to its usual, depopulated state.

But Putnam, host of the war room, had only begun to fight. He called a news conference in the Capitol basement with Boehner and distributed orange juice made with fruit his family had grown in Florida. Sipping the juice, he repeated his dueling points: (a) "This is just the first step to defunding troops in harm's way," and (b) "This week's resolution is really just a stunt."

The Post's Jonathan Weisman asked for a clarification. "Is this resolution a meaningless stunt or is it very consequential?"

Boehner struggled through an answer about "two levels and two different points." Putnam frowned but said nothing.

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