Democrats are intensifying efforts to hold President Bush and his fellow Republicans accountable for missteps in the Iraq war, as they seek to exploit a potential GOP vulnerability heading into Congress’ midterm election year.
Outnumbered on Capitol Hill, Democrats are embracing the little power they have in the GOP-controlled House and Senate by using procedural techniques to highlight Iraq troubles and issue blistering critiques of Bush’s war policies.
At the same time, increasing numbers of Democrats are calling for the president to start withdrawing U.S. troops by year’s end and are laying out their own timetables for pulling out of the war-battered country.
“What the Democrats are saying essentially is, enough is enough. It’s time to determine the facts and to hold the president accountable for the miscalculations, misjudgments and misrepresentations,” said Steve McMahon, a Democratic consultant.
On Tuesday, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada surprised and infuriated Republicans by invoking an arcane Senate rule to force the chamber into closed session for more than two hours on Iraq and prewar intelligence.
Two days later, Reid’s counterpart in the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, tried unsuccessfully to get the GOP-controlled chamber to take up a measure condemning Republicans for “their refusal to conduct oversight” of the administration’s Iraq war policy and order investigations into it.
In both cases, Democrats say Republican leaders have put political interests ahead of national security by failing in their oversight responsibilities of the Iraq war.
Republicans dismissed the actions as political stunts and accused Democrats of trying to steal news headlines from Bush’s nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Senate Democrats were going “to extraordinary and unprecedented measures to obstruct the business of the American people. Because the Democrats have no ideas or agenda of their own, they’ve made an awkward attempt at changing the subject.”
The Democrats’ stepped-up campaign coincides with Bush’s popularity plummeting to its lowest levels ever, with a new AP-Ipsos poll placing his approval rating at 37 percent.
CIA leak, Iraq deaths
It also coincides with two other high-profile events — the grim milestone of 2,000 U.S. military deaths in Iraq and the indictment of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, in a case that touched on intelligence the president used in the run-up to the war.
Democrats say that gave them an opening to more aggressively press the administration to outline a plan for withdrawal and demand that Congress complete a stalled investigation into prewar intelligence.
Like Republicans, Democrats also have been feeling the heat from their constituents, who are growing increasingly frustrated with the war as casualties climb and costs soar. AP-Ipsos polling shows public support for Bush’s handling of Iraq at its lowest point, also 37 percent.
Democrats hope aggressively pushing Bush on Iraq will unify their party and fracture Republicans by forcing GOP candidates to decide whether to stand with the president or distance themselves from him and his policies.
The minority party also is using its intensified effort on Iraq to raise money.
“Make a special donation and send a note of thanks to Harry Reid asking him to keep up the fight,” said a fundraising e-mail from Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, sent out the day of the closed Senate session.
Treatment of prisoners
In coming weeks, House Democrats, led by Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, plan to force the House to consider a Senate-approved ban on the “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” of prisoners in U.S. custody. Members of both parties expect the House to side with the Senate, despite a White House veto threat.
A former Marine who served in Vietnam, Murtha rarely makes such public moves. But when the conservative Democrat speaks on military issues, colleagues tend to listen.
Murtha said Thursday that he has grown so concerned about some of the president’s war policies that he plans a speech laying out his recommendations for the war before the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections in Iraq.
“This war is destroying our ability to meet the threat down the road,” Murtha said.
Two other senior Democrats weighed in with speeches as well over the past two weeks.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts called for a “reasonable time frame” for pulling back troops, and said 20,000 should start returning home in December if the elections go well. And former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said all U.S. troops should be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2007.