Nearly four years after it authorized the use of force in Iraq, the House today will embark on its first extended debate on the war, with Republican leaders daring Democrats to vote against a nonbinding resolution to hold firm on Iraq and the war on terrorism.
In the wake of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's death and President Bush's surprise trip to Baghdad, Republican leaders are moving quickly to capitalize on good news and trying to force Democrats on the defensive. Bush continued his own campaign with a morning news conference and a White House meeting with congressional leaders from both parties, while House leaders strategized on today's 10-hour debate.
A memo from House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) urged House Republican members Tuesday to make the debate "a portrait of contrasts between Republicans and Democrats." After Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) was booed this week by liberal activists for her failure to resolutely oppose the war, Republicans hope to present a united front that highlights the fractures in the Democratic Party.
"As a result of our efforts during this debate, Americans will recognize that on the issue of national security, they have a clear choice between a Republican Party aware of the stakes and dedicated to victory, versus a Democratic Party without a coherent national security policy that sheepishly dismisses the challenges America faces in a post-9/11 world," Boehner wrote.
But the day-long debate will also give voice to some GOP lawmakers' misgivings about Bush administration policy -- and years of congressional support for it -- in an election year in which Iraq will be a central issue. The news of recent days has buoyed Republican spirits, but the party is still saddled with a war that remains deeply unpopular and is imperiling its continued control of Congress. Some House Republicans have complained that their party has taken flight from its responsibility to debate and oversee administration policy.
"I can't help but feel through eyes of a combat-wounded Marine in Vietnam, if someone was shot, you tried to save his life. . . . While you were in combat, you had a sense of urgency to end the slaughter, and around here we don't have that sense of urgency," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.), a usually soft-spoken backbencher who has urged his leaders to challenge the White House on Iraq. "To me, the administration does not act like there's a war going on. The Congress certainly doesn't act like there's a war going on. If you're raising money to keep the majority, if you're thinking about gay marriage, if you're doing all this other peripheral stuff, what does that say to the guy who's about ready to drive over a land mine?"
The last time Iraq dominated the House's attention, the issue was far less politically fluid. In October 2002, many Democrats went along with Bush's resolution of force, fearing the political consequences of opposing a popular president and a bellicose national mood. Now, some Republicans -- especially those representing battleground districts in the Northeast and Midwest -- will be swimming against the tide of public opinion.
Already, the resolution itself -- declaring that the United States will complete the mission to create a sovereign, free, secure and united Iraq and will prevail in the global war on terror -- has attracted strong criticism from lawmakers in both parties. Democrats and antiwar Republicans object to the linkage between the war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism, while some Republicans have said it sets unrealistic goals. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.), who supports the war, called the resolution "strategically nebulous and morally obtuse."
But the strongest misgivings may be practical. Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) called the entire exercise "a dumb idea" that will highlight precisely the issue that is threatening Republican political fortunes.
"When the country is war-weary, when the violence is still playing out on TV, I don't know why we want to highlight all that," he said.
But Gilchrest, who won the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his Marine service in Vietnam in the 1960s, believes political considerations have already played too large a role in the debate. In November, after Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) announced his support for a rapid withdrawal from Iraq, Republican leaders hastily pushed a resolution to the House floor calling for immediate pull-out. But the cursory two-hour debate was noteworthy less for serious policy discourse than for the suggestion by the House's newest member, Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio), that Murtha, a decorated war veteran, was a coward.
"It was ludicrous," Gilchrest said. "It had nothing to do with saving lives. It had nothing to do with the war. It was one-upsmanship against the Democrats."
That sentiment spurred Gilchrest and four other Republicans to break with their leadership this spring and sign on to a Democratic petition pushing for debate. Boehner pledged to do so weeks ago.
But GOP leaders are trying to make sure today's debate is on Republican terms. The resolution, "declaring that the United States will prevail in the Global War on Terror [and] the struggle to protect freedom from the terrorist adversary," was introduced with unabashed partisan overtones. The rules of debate will not allow the resolution to be amended, nor will alternative resolutions be allowed on the floor for a vote.
Some war opponents -- sensing a political trap -- vowed yesterday not to participate. Five House members -- three Democrats and two Republicans -- held a news conference with a yellow rope tied around their hands to denounce the terms of debate.
"This is nothing more or less than really a charade," said Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. (R-N.C.), who made headlines in the run-up to the Iraq invasion by changing french fries to "freedom fries" in the House dining room but has since turned strongly against the war.
But Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), whose support for the war has helped put him in his toughest reelection battle yet, said "it is important for everybody to clarify their position, to be clear, and to stop giving mixed messages."
But Gilchrest acknowledged he has ambivalent feelings about the way forward to success in Iraq. Citing his own battlefield experiences, he said this uncertainty is all the more reason for a full debate. "How many members have in their life [experienced] putting the barrel of their gun on another man's chest and pulling the trigger?" he asked in an interview this week. "How many members have experienced the chaos of a 3 a.m. battle, pushing your bayonet through another man's body? How many members have wrapped themselves around a fellow soldier who just lost his legs in a land mine and you feel the last breath and he's dead, calling in airstrikes on a village and walking through, seeing dead babies and others who are still alive, being with someone who's been shot and you can't move, you can't do anything because you're under intense fire and he dies right next to you?"