After largely avoiding the subject since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, lawmakers are suddenly confronting the issue of President Bush's handling of the war. The start hasn't been pretty.
Political stunts by both parties have created an air of acrimony that is infecting the parties' entire agendas. The bitterness reached a new high -- or low -- on Friday when House Republicans forced a late-night vote on a resolution for immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces.
The resolution failed, 403 to 3, but only after members nearly came to blows when a GOP newcomer suggested a veteran Democratic military hawk was a coward.
"Iraq is now a cloud over everything," said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan political analyst specializing in Congress. "It's the 800-pound gorilla in the room."
"I feel like every morning, I wake up, get a concrete block and have to walk around with it all day," said first-term Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who came to the Senate with an ambitious agenda to overhaul Social Security and the tax code. "We can't even address the issues."
After simmering on Congress's back burner for months, the Iraq war debate has eclipsed every other issue in the capital, slowing progress on some matters while stopping it on others. The GOP-led House and Senate are struggling to pass major tax legislation, an extension of the USA Patriot Act and a broad budget-cutting bill. Bush's top 2005 domestic agenda item -- revamping Social Security -- has sunk from sight, and more recently his bipartisan panel on tax reform barely made a ripple when it issued recommendations.
GOP leaders view items such as the Patriot Act and the budget as too vital to fail in the end, but every endeavor is now made more difficult by the fracturing over Iraq -- and just when the 2006 congressional elections begin to loom. Republicans have lost their anchor of the past five years -- Bush's popularity -- while Democrats are struggling to find their voice on the war. Both sides cannot dally for long, said Peter D. Hart, a Democratic pollster.
"Iraq is now the dominant issue that is affecting voters, and it's affecting Bush's ratings," Hart said. "The public has reached a firm, fixed position on Iraq, and it's not going to change: This is not going to come to a successful conclusion, so how do we figure out how to get out of Iraq?"
Until recently, only Democrats seemed to struggle to find their voice on Iraq, while Republicans were virtually united in backing Bush's policies. But when the 2,000th U.S. military death there coincided with troubling revelations about prewar intelligence and Bush's plunging approval ratings, Republican cohesion began to fray.
Political developments in Iraq, such as the adoption of a new constitution, cannot overcome the impression left by the daily reports of suicide bombers and the milestone of 2,000 deaths among U.S. servicemen, pollsters and political analysts say.
Public opinion has, in turn, emboldened Democrats to sharpen their attacks, and it has freed some Republicans -- especially Northeastern moderates -- to chart a new political course that separates them from the White House but wreaks havoc with the GOP's legislative agenda.
"The central new development is the decomposition of the president's support in Congress," said Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University congressional expert. "I think there is a very acute realization on the part of Republicans that they no longer can hitch their careers to his popularity. That, combined with the new aggressiveness by the Democrats, means you're seeing basically a Bush agenda that is largely being derailed."
Politicians tried to calm the waters roiled by Friday's House maneuvering. GOP leaders had seized upon an impassioned call Thursday by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, hoping to put Democrats on the spot by rushing a resolution to the floor calling on the administration to bring the troops home now. The ensuing bitter debate brought out calls for calm even before it was over.
"Today's debate in the House of Representatives shows the need for bipartisanship on the war in Iraq, instead of more political posturing," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.), said in a statement Friday night hailing the bipartisan Senate vote earlier in the week that called on the administration to share more information on the war's progress and to make 2006 a year of significant transition away from U.S. military action.
Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said yesterday that the result of the debate was positive, an unambiguous, bipartisan show of resolve for the war effort. Only three Democrats, Reps. Jose E. Serrano (N.Y.), Cynthia McKinney (Ga.) and Robert Wexler (Fla.), voted for the withdrawal resolution. But Pence too noted the acrimony of the discourse. "We cannot do democracy without a heavy dose of civility," he said.
The acrimony, and the all-encompassing nature of the war debate, are having a broad impact. Bush's recent globe-trotting, in Latin America and Asia, has produced more stories on dissent over Iraq than on free trade, economic cooperation and China's move toward democracy.
When Bush's bipartisan panel on tax reform issued its recent recommendations to simplify the tax code, proposals to eliminate deductions for home mortgage interest and state and local taxes might have been expected to create an uproar. Instead, the panel's report barely made a peep.
The president's plan to trim promised Social Security benefits and add private investment accounts disappeared. When Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said any reform plan is dead until 2009, the comments were hardly noted.
Other high-profile legislative priorities have been slowed by a lack of attention from the preoccupied leadership. Congressional aides released details last week from a compromise reached over the extension of the Patriot Act, the controversial anti-terrorism law passed weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But the deal was not acted on quickly, and in ensuing days, provisions of the compromise attracted enough negative attention that a planned vote on the measure was delayed until at least next month.
House Republicans took weeks to garner enough votes to pass a five-year, $50 billion budget-cutting measure full of high-priority policy changes Bush has requested for welfare, Medicaid, agriculture supports and other entitlement programs. The Iraq-induced plunge in Bush's popularity emboldened moderates to oppose the most conservative parts of the bill.
On Friday, after the measure passed by two votes, Republican leaders hoped to highlight the victory at a "get out of town" rally. But they swamped their message by hastily putting the Iraq pullout resolution to a vote. That move also precluded an expected vote on a five-year, $56 billion measure to extend some of Bush's most prized, first-term tax cuts.
Rothenberg says such confusion does not bode well for the political fortunes of the beleaguered GOP. "The public doesn't like mess," he said. "When they realize things are messy, they get frustrated, and they arrive at the general conclusion that you blame the people you figure are in charge."