WASHINGTON—Republicans firmly defended President Bush's policies in Iraq and Democrats accused his administration of waging a botched and mistaken war as the House of Representatives engaged Thursday in its first extended debate on the war since U.S. troops removed Saddam Hussein from power more than three years ago.
The election-year debate was freighted with politics, as Republicans seized on recent upbeat news from Iraq to portray Democratic calls for troop withdrawals as a policy of "cut and run." Yet for all the political overtones, the tone of the House debate was strikingly civil, sober and morally serious.
"We are making progress toward our goal, but the battle is not over," Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said. "It is a battle we must endure and one in which we can and will be victorious. The alternative would be to cut and run and wait for them to regroup and bring the terror back to our shores."
Democrats largely avoided discussion of a withdrawal deadline, focusing their attention on the continuing bloodshed in Iraq, as the U.S. military death toll reached 2,500 there on Thursday. They described conditions in Iraq as worse than when the war began in 2003 and said the war has damaged America's image abroad.
"It's not getting better. . . . Things are getting worse. . . . More Americans are being killed every day," said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. "We're caught in a civil war between 100,000 Shias and 20,000 Sunnis fighting each other."
The Democrats' stance against Bush belied deep divisions within their party on whether to withdraw from Iraq, and if so, how fast. In the Senate, an expected debate on a Democratic measure calling for gradual withdrawal wallowed on hold all day amid disputes among Democrats over the precise language of their proposal.
In one parliamentary ploy, Republicans forced Democrats to vote against an amendment similar to one pending from Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. It called for the United States to withdraw the bulk of its troops from Iraq by the end of this year. The Senate voted 93-6 to kill the measure. Kerry was among the six voting no, but he accused Republicans of forcing a "fictitious vote" and pledged to bring up his own version of the measure next week.
Kerry urged the Senate to eschew parliamentary gamesmanship and give "seriousness of purpose" to a "debate of this kind of consequence."
That vote, however, illustrated the squeamishness among Democratic lawmakers over supporting a hard and fast deadline for withdrawal, especially such an immediate one, despite pressure from the party's liberal base. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, consulting with his party's top foreign policy leaders, was inclined to seek a gradual withdrawal that would begin this year, aides said. The Senate is expected to debate that proposal next week.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has proposed that troops withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2007. Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, would like redeployment to begin by the end of this year and conclude by the end of 2007.
In the House, lawmakers held a 10-hour debate on a resolution that equated the war in Iraq with the broader war against terrorism and specifically rejected setting a deadline for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Under Republican rules, Democrats weren't able to offer any amendments. A vote on the resolution was expected Friday.
Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, offered a rare voice of Republican dissent, arguing that the Bush administration should reconsider its policy.
"The longer we stay, the greater the prospect that anarchistic acts will multiply and spread perhaps to our shores," he said. "The issue is no longer, as is so frequently asserted, the need to stay the course. It is to avoid overstaying the present."
In an unusual move, the Pentagon distributed a 72-page defense of the war to lawmakers. The document says that the Bush administration has a "three pillared strategy for victory"—establishing a liberal constitution with increased political participation, training Iraqi security forces and helping build the Iraqi economy.
Political strategists have said that the debate poses political dangers and opportunities for both sides. After steadily declining public support for the war and for his handling of it, President Bush appears for the moment to be benefiting from a spate of positive news from Iraq, including the death of al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the completion of the Iraqi Cabinet.
But Iraq has proved to be unpredictable.
"Unless you are sure that things are going to get better there, you're putting an awful lot of chips on that number on the table," said Republican pollster and strategist Tony Fabrizio.
"The danger for Republicans is that it looks like (Democrats) have a better plan to extricate ourselves and maintain Iraqi security than we do," Fabrizio said. "So it all is going to come down to salesmanship. If (Democrats) get painted as cut and run, then they've lost that argument."
Democrats paint it as Bush's responsibility.
"This is the president's war," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California told reporters. "He has to answer for it."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.