Congress to focus on war, terrorism

June 11, 2006|By MAURA REYNOLDS | MAURA REYNOLDS,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- War and terrorism will take center stage in Congress next week, as both chambers vote on an emergency military spending bill and the House devotes a day to debating a resolution on Iraq and terrorism.

House Republican leaders say the decision to focus on the conflict in Iraq and the terrorism issue was made long ago. But GOP officials concede that the killing of Iraqi insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi by a U.S. air strike last week was fortuitous, making it easier for the Republicans to defend the administration's policies.

"It certainly helps the atmosphere of the debate," said Ron Bonjean, the spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican. "It shows that we are fighting and winning the war on terror, and the resolution will reflect that."

The measure is expected to assert that operations in Iraq are part of a global war on terror and to express resolve to complete the mission.

House Democratic leaders are awaiting the resolution's final wording before announcing their position on it. "We haven't seen it yet," said Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat. "I would hope the Republicans did not try to play politics with something this serious."

In November, House members engaged in a heated debate over a resolution calling for an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq. The Republicans argued that it was important for lawmakers to go on record opposing that idea after Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, one of the House's most respected military hawks, had argued that the U.S. presence in Iraq had become counterproductive and that American troops should start pulling out of the country.

Democrats angrily denounced the Republican-introduced measure as a political stunt that misrepresented Murtha's point and aimed to create divisiveness. The measure was defeated, 403-3.

Debate on the new resolution pushed by the GOP is expected to come Thursday, after a vote earlier in the week on a compromise version of a $94.5 billion emergency spending bill. Of the total, $70.4 billion will pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the rest devoted to hurricane relief and pandemic flu preparations.

At the same time, the Senate will begin debate on a $517.7 billion funding bill for the Department of Defense.

Both measures will provide Republicans and Democrats ample opportunity to make their cases for or against the war in Iraq. Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, has said he plans to offer an amendment to the Senate bill requiring the withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of this year.

Polls taken before al-Zarqawi's death showed deep dissatisfaction among the American public over a perceived lack of progress in Iraq, prompting questions about why Republican leaders would raise the subject. In a recent ABC News poll, 62 percent of Americans said the war in Iraq was "not worth fighting."

But Norman Ornstein, an expert on White House and congressional relations with the American Enterprise Institute think tank, said spotlighting Iraq exemplifies Bush political strategist Karl Rove's mantra that, "The best defense is a good offense."

"That's Karl's playbook all the way - turn weakness into strength," Ornstein said. "Republicans still believe that no matter how much people are unhappy with what happens in Iraq ... the Democrat Party can be portrayed as a weak party."

While Republicans have a simple stay-the-course message, Democrats have struggled with a two-part formulation: support for the troops and anti-terrorism efforts, but criticism of the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war.

Kevin Madden, the spokesman for House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said the Democrats' arguments usually lose ground with the public when they are aired.

"This is a contrast that is important for the American people to see - that we have shown resolve even when faced with challenges," Madden said. "The Democrats don't have a coherent strategy for what they would do, and when faced with those very same challenges, the only specific policy they have advocated is withdrawal or retreat and defeat."

Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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