WASHINGTON—The Senate debate over Iraq this week changed no policy, but with congressional elections less than five months away, the debate defined as never before where the political parties stand on the divisive three-year-old war.
Democrats, prodded by their liberal wing to initiate the debate, pressed a single message: that the Bush administration has no plan to end the war and bring the troops home.
Republicans embraced the challenge, eager to portray the conflict in Iraq as part of the war on terrorism and Democratic calls for withdrawing troops as a sign of weakness.
The debate exposed divisions among Democrats. In the end 38 Democrats and one Republican voted Thursday in favor of a nonbinding Senate measure that called for troop withdrawals to begin this year but set no firm end date. It failed 60-39.
Only 13 Democrats and no Republicans voted for a proposal by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., to withdraw entirely from Iraq by July 2007. It failed 86-13.
Last week, the House of Representatives voted 256-153 in favor of a resolution opposing any timetable for withdrawal, with Republicans voting 214 for it and only three against, while Democrats split, 42 for and 149 against. One independent also voted against it.
The debates were designed for maximum political impact. While Republicans and Democrats alike complained about reducing the debate to election year slogans, at its heart, that's what it was about.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada stood in front of an easel bearing a sign titled, "The Republican Plan on Iraq." The sign was otherwise blank. "This is George Bush's war," Reid said, employing a stock Democratic phrase that's already showing up in campaigns.
In a new TV ad Thursday, Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who voted for both Democratic plans, went after his challenger, Republican Tom Kean Jr., this way: "My opponent supports George Bush's war. I couldn't disagree more."
Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee denounced the Democrats' Iraq proposals as "dangerous," "reckless" and "shameless." He and many other Republicans dismissed the Democrats' strategy with a onetime nautical term that's become a political cliche: "cut and run."
"The brave men and women of our armed forces are fighting daily to win victory in Iraq and it would dishonor them, to say nothing of their fallen comrades, to cut and run at a time as promising as now," Frist said.
For Democrats, the debate was partly about appeasing the party's core voters, who've long complained about the 29 Democratic senators who voted in October 2002 to grant Bush authority to use force in Iraq. They also hoped to ride a small wave of public opinion favoring a withdrawal timetable.
For Kerry, who's considering a second run at the presidency, the debate was an opportunity to atone for his 2004 presidential campaign, when he refused to retract his 2002 vote to authorize force in Iraq and presented only vague alternatives to Bush's war strategy.
"We've since learned a whole host of things about the policy and the deceptions," Kerry said in an interview.
The less-specific withdrawal proposal by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., also had a partisan purpose: By not setting a specific pullout deadline, it was designed to protect Democrats from charges that they're feeble on defense. That's the plan that 38 out of 44 Democrats endorsed.
"There are some Democrats who believe that, no matter what the public feels today about the war, the party is carrying baggage from the past 30 to 40 years as the guys who are weak on national security, not sufficiently tough," said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan political analyst.
That's the case that Republicans pressed.
Vice President Dick Cheney weighed in Thursday, saying in a CNN interview that the Democrats' position "in effect, validates the terrorist strategy."
Democratic strategist Tad Devine, who worked on the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns, said Democrats should avoid specific strategies on Iraq and present themselves simply as the alternative to Bush.
Rothenberg agreed: "The issue is working for them now. Why help the Republicans redefine it? Why offer a very detailed proposal that Republicans can attack?"
Senate Democrats contended that the debate showed their essential unity behind a responsible stand; they coalesced around a position that didn't call for a specific pullout deadline, but they clearly were pressing harder than Republicans to start withdrawing U.S. troops.
"I think every person who's thinking about running for president that's in the United States Senate, every Democrat, voted for our resolution," Levin said.
Reid interjected: "And that's a lot of people."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.