Three days of intense debate over the Iraq war begins in the House today, with Democrats planning to propose a narrowly worded rebuke of President Bush's troop buildup and Republicans girding for broad defections on their side.
Both parties will jockey for prime time before the C-SPAN cameras, with leaders claiming the best time slots and rank-and-file members trying to make the most of the five minutes each will be allotted. If all 435 House members use their five minutes, debate will last 36 hours. It is likely to begin by late morning and run until midnight tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday. A vote is expected Friday.
After watching their counterparts in the Senate stall and sputter last week, unable to agree on ground rules for a debate on Iraq, House leaders are forging ahead, determined to send a statement to the White House to condemn a troop buildup.
Democrats will file a nonbinding resolution against the Bush plan while Republicans will try to broaden the dispute and seed doubt in the Democratic approach. Although Senate Republicans were able to block debate on a resolution condemning Bush's war policies last week, it will be much easier for Democrats in the House to bring a measure to the floor.
The GOP, whose members have conceded they are likely to lose, is treating the debate like a mini-political campaign, deploying a rapid-response team to counter Democrats' statements, aggressively trying to get its leaders on television and radio, and creating a "resource center" off the House floor where members can fill their arms with maps, research material, videos or other visual aids to use during their floor time.
"We may lose the vote, but we'll win the debate," said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
Other Republicans are not so sure they will win even that much. If Democrats stick to their plan of narrowly focusing debate on the president's deployment of 21,500 additional troops to Iraq, the more contentious issues that Republican leaders want to highlight could fail to resonate.
‘A dispute in tactics’
"What we have now is a dispute in tactics," said Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), who once supported the administration but is opposed to the troop increase. "This is a situation where we've been dealt a bad hand, where we've made a lot of mistakes, where we should have addressed the problems in Baghdad a long time ago, and now a surge on the scale the president has proposed is unlikely to move us forward."
One House Republican close to the GOP leadership spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be blunt. "This next week is going to be a very tough one for us to get through," he said. "The Democrats know that. We can sit back and hope they overplay their hand, but I don't think they will."
Although the order of speakers has not yet been set, Democrats and Republicans are vying for the most desired slots at a time when attention in Washington will focus on the House. Lawmakers from the West Coast do not want to speak early in the morning, when their constituents are asleep; those from the East do not want to appear at 11:25 p.m. And nearly everyone wants to talk in time to make the evening news and beat the daily newspapers' deadlines.
The last time an Iraq resolution came before the House was in June, when the Republicans controlled Congress. After two days of largely partisan debate, the House easily approved a measure declaring that the United States must complete "the mission to create a sovereign, free, secure and united Iraq," without setting "an arbitrary date for the withdrawal" of troops. Forty-two Democrats bucked their leadership to join a virtually united GOP.
But this debate will be different, lawmakers from both parties agree.
Democrats get to draft the resolution, and the war -- already unpopular in June -- is now clearly opposed by most voters. The party is united, even the left wing, which ultimately wants troop withdrawal from Iraq but is content to see the resolution as a first step.
House Republicans say as few as 20 or as many as 60 Republicans could vote with the Democrats, regardless of the wishes of the Republican leadership and the White House.
"Every time I go to another funeral, every time I go to Walter Reed, people are really gracious, but what do you say? What are we doing over there now?" asked Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.), whose Eastern Shore district has lost 23 service members in the war.
GOP leaders and conservatives may apply some pressure to stay off the Democratic resolution, but, Gilchrest added: "My internal soul goes a lot beyond my minuscule political career."
By its nature, the House is quicker to bend to public opinion than the Senate; House members are never more than two years away from an election. Gilchrest voted with the Republican leadership in June, but last month he was one of eight House Republicans who signed a letter stating that the deployment of additional U.S. troops to the sectarian fighting in Iraq would only make matters worse.
A senior Republican aide said the GOP leadership knows that Republicans from districts where the war is unpopular will have to vote with the Democrats to protect themselves. "And that's okay," he said, adding that Republican leaders will not tell their members to stick with the party line.
Gilchrest collected 29 Republican signatures on his own letter pleading with Bush to open diplomatic dialogue with Syria and Iran to find a way out of Iraq, then personally handed the letter to Bush at a bill-signing ceremony in the Oval Office. He is now working with Democratic Reps. Gregory W. Meeks (N.Y.), James P. McGovern (Mass.) and Solomon P. Ortiz (Tex.) to further that diplomatic push.
For some Republicans, the Democratic takeover of Congress has been liberating. A barrage of recent hearings into malfeasance under the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq, the stretched state of the military and the cost of the war have brought to light new information while underscoring congressional acquiescence under GOP control, said Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.), a longtime war critic.
"My party did not want to do anything to embarrass the administration," he said.