WASHINGTON—At times passionate and at times partisan, Democrats and Republicans squared off Wednesday in an unprecedented Senate debate on the war in Iraq, as Democrats pressed the Bush administration to begin withdrawing U.S. troops by the end of this year.
Democrats squabbled among themselves about deadlines for withdrawal, but formed a unified front against the Bush administration's war strategy. Republicans assailed any talk of a pullout as a dangerous signal of weakness to terrorists and Iraqi insurgents that would forsake the thousands of American soldiers who've been wounded or killed.
"This administration's refrain that we're in Iraq as long as the Iraqis need us is creating a dependency of unlimited duration and gives the Iraqis the impression that their security is more in our hands than in theirs," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., one of the lead authors of a measure to begin withdrawing troops this year.
Republicans countered that any timetable, even an open-ended one such as Levin's, would embolden al-Qaida and insurgent fighters in Iraq, who want U.S. troops out.
"They are likely to say, `We'll wait out the timetable and then we'll resume the violence and every means we can to destabilize this (Iraqi) government,'" said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Votes on two Democratic withdrawal proposals are scheduled for Thursday.
The give-and-take was high-minded and serious amid pleas from both sides to end the political name-calling that had marked the buildup to the debate.
Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., his voice cracking with emotion, eulogized Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker of Madras, Ore., one of two soldiers who reportedly were brutalized, tortured and killed this week after being kidnapped in Iraq. Smith also called for politicians to temper the rhetoric that's characterized the war debate.
"My soul cries out for something more dignified," he said. Of advocates of withdrawal, he added: "I don't believe their dissent is unpatriotic." But he said a pullout would be "a tactical mistake of monumental proportions."
The floor exchanges hid a subtext of election-year and presidential politics.
Levin faced a competing Democratic proposal from Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, both possible presidential contenders in 2008, who urged withdrawing troops by July 1 of next year.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., whom liberals have criticized for not taking a stronger anti-war stance, said she opposed the hard-and-fast deadline that Kerry and Feingold proposed but would support Levin.
On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who's considered the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and is a strong supporter of U.S. intervention in Iraq, vigorously opposed the Democratic proposals. But he distanced himself from the Bush administration by arguing that the level of violence "remains unacceptably high."
"We've made serious mistakes and the costs have been very high," he said.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a persistent critic of Bush administration policy in Iraq who's also weighing a 2008 presidential run, also opposed the Democratic proposals, saying Congress shouldn't limit Bush's policy options. But, he added, "it is not in Iraq's interests for the U.S. to remain in Iraq.
"Our influence is limited and becoming more limited every day."
Many Democrats privately criticized Kerry for pushing a specific deadline, a stance that provoked Republicans to label the Democrats' position as one of "cut and run." Some Democratic senators, particularly Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Maria Cantwell of Washington, face primary competition from anti-war Democrats who've criticized their past support for the war.
Lieberman announced that he'd oppose both Democratic amendments.
The debate prompted varying descriptions of conditions in Iraq, with senators variously sounding optimistic or pessimistic to make their case for pulling out or staying put.
Warner argued that "there is clear proof" of "concrete, visible results."
"We're moving toward establishing a secure and prosperous nation," he said. Any timetable to withdraw, he said, would "set back that momentum."
But Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, painted a different picture: "Does anyone in this body believe that Iraq is totally in the control of Iraqis today? Does anyone believe that there aren't insurgents and agitators from other parts of the world—al-Qaida, Iran, other terrorist organizations—with the specific purpose of destabilizing that country?"
McCain cited the killing of al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the completion of the Iraqi Cabinet as positive steps, but added: "We will see steps backwards as well, like the continuing violence in Baghdad and the insurgency in Ramadi. No one should have any illusions about the costs of this conflict."
Democrats cited an op-ed article in The Washington Post by Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie that said the Iraqi government envisioned foreign troop reductions this year and withdrawal of most of them by the end of 2007.
"I don't know if my colleagues will accuse the Iraqi national security adviser of cutting and running from his own country," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., Levin's co-sponsor. "This is what a leading figure in the government of Iraq is suggesting, a phased redeployment beginning this year, hopefully concluding by the end of 2007."
Kerry, in an interview, said conditions were so bad in Iraq that its government needed specific deadlines to take control of the country.
"It's remarkably unsafe to be anywhere for any foreigners and for Iraqis," Kerry said. "Electricity is less than it was prewar, water is less than it was. The middle class has been leaving Iraq in droves. It's a disastrous policy that our troops are powerless to reverse."
Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, one of several Democrats who oppose Kerry's proposal, said a specific deadline would backfire:
"For my friend to say get out at a certain time, I say I understand your frustration, but what do you do after that? What do you do if things go to hell in a hand basket quickly, and there is a civil war that turns into a regional war? What is your plan?"
Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran who was criticized during his 2004 presidential run for not disavowing his vote to authorize force in Iraq, said it was time for him to take a position.
"I believe young lives are being lost needlessly," he said. "I'm not going to stay here as a U.S. senator and add names to the Iraqi wall or whatever memorial we have because I didn't take a stand."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.