Rhetoric and Boobytraps: How Congress Debates a War

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The debates in both the House and Senate this week over Iraq policy were in many ways simply political grandstanding. In the Senate, while Democrats were debating amongst themselves a proposal that would call for some kind of graduated troop withdrawal, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the No. 2 leader of the Senate Republicans, rushed a proposal to the floor calling for the withdrawal of troops by the end of the year, hoping to expose the split among Democrats. Only six Democrats voted for the provision. The House, meanwhile, spent more than 13 hours debating a non-binding resolution, framed by the GOP and obviously designed as a trap for Democrats. It said that the House "honors the sacrifices of the United States Armed Forces and of partners in the Coalition" and declares "that the United States will prevail in the Global War on Terror." But such general sentiments were combined with two more controversial propositions: explicitly linking Iraq to the broader war on terrorism and pledging that the U.S. would not set a date for withdrawal of troops, two views many Democrats oppose.

The House resolution passed 256-153, with 42 Democrats, many from tightly contested congressional districts, voting for it, while all the party's leaders opposed it. Democrats are already worried that the GOP could again use the security issue to beat them in this fall's election, as they did in 2002 and 2004, by pointing to the vote as evidence that Democrats don't support the troops. After the vote, when asked if Republicans would use the issue to attack Democrats, Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in House, said, "I hope not, but the 60-second ads are already in the can, no matter what happens."

The rhetoric on both sides was heated, with the Republicans calling Democrats "defeatist" and advocating a "cut and run" policy, while Democrats talked about the importance of "redeployment," rather than the more political loaded term, "withdrawal." The Democrats in both houses continue to approach the issue nervously. While Senators John Kerry and Russ Feingold pushed their colleagues to support a withdrawal of troops, others in both the Senate and House are trying to find common ground on some kind of phased withdrawal over the next year, perhaps presenting this plan over the next week.

The key question is how the public views the Iraq debate. Polls suggest that a large majority of Americans now view the war as as mistake, but they're conflicted about whether troops should return home quickly or stay as long as they need to be there for Iraqi security. Republicans seem to be betting that they can use the Democrats' eagerness to get out of Iraq as an election issue, reinforcing public doubts about the party's record on national security issues. But that's a risky strategy, since the war is what has dragged down the poll numbers of both Bush and Congress.