House starts Iraq debate

GOP seeks support for Bush

Democrats call for change of direction

June 16, 2006|By JILL ZUCKMAN | JILL ZUCKMAN,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- After more than three years and 2,500 deaths, the House embarked yesterday on its most extensive debate about the war in Iraq, with Republicans demanding support for President Bush's course and Democrats calling for a change in direction to allow U.S. troops to come home.

Lawmakers were expected to talk late into the night, resume their debate today, then vote on a resolution crafted by Republican leaders that would shun specific timetables for shifting troops out of Iraq and casts the war as a vital front in the war on terrorism.

Political concerns

The debate on the merits of the war reflects the urgency that lawmakers feel about addressing what has become a volatile political situation as November's midterm congressional elections approach.

Democrats are trying to capitalize on voters' disenchantment, and Republicans are trying to portray themselves as resolute and strong.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, was first to speak, casting the debate in sweeping, historic terms as a means to protect Americans from terrorists at home and to nurture a way of life.

"This resolution is about more than the war in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Hastert, who rarely speaks on the floor and votes on only the most important occasions. "It is about a global war to protect American ideals and the democracy and values on which this great nation was founded. This resolution, like this war itself, is about freedom."

Democrats called the proceedings undemocratic because Republicans would not allow them to offer amendments. And they blamed the president for politicizing intelligence, going to war without a plan and making repeated mistakes along the way.

"Democrats are united in saying we need a new direction in Iraq," said Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader. "This is a war that is a grotesque mistake."

As the elections draw closer, Republicans are hoping to point to achievements in Iraq and to turn public opinion in their favor. Opinion polls have indicated that Americans consider the war in Iraq the most important issue facing the nation, and they have been disappointed in the way Bush and Congress have handled it.

The recent killing of terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the formation of an Iraqi Cabinet and the emergence of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could help Republicans make the case that the situation in Iraq is improving.

In the Senate, Republicans scored a quick political victory yesterday when Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, offered an amendment written by Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, that calls for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by the end of the year. The amendment was defeated 93-6.

Democrats also used symbolism when Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, asked for a moment of silence on the House floor to mark the 2,500th U.S. combat death, which occurred yesterday.

At the White House, press secretary Tony Snow called the number a "sad benchmark."

"Any president who goes through a time of war feels very deeply the responsibility for sending men and women into harm's way, and feels very deeply the pain that the families feel," Snow said. "And this president is no different."

The strategy on both sides of the House aisle was clear. Republicans stressed the evils of terrorism and the importance of supporting the troops, and Democrats questioned the administration's competence and picked apart every statement it has made about the conflict.

Pentagon briefing

In preparation for the debate, the Pentagon put together an unusual briefing book for Republicans, laying out the case for war and providing responses to criticism.

Republicans ticked off terrorist attacks that have occurred in recent years, beginning with the bombing of Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, when Ronald Reagan was president and including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Linking those attacks and the war in Iraq, lawmakers said the United States must not waver.

"We must stand firm in our commitment to fight terrorism and the evil it inflicts throughout the world," Hastert said. "We must renew our resolve that the actions of evildoers will not dictate American policy."

Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat who is the Democrats' leading critic of the war, said it is time to leave the war-torn nation.

"Only the Iraqis can solve the problem in Iraq," said Murtha, a decorated former Marine. "They're fighting with each other, and our troops are caught in between, and I say it's time to redeploy."

Jill Zuckman writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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