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The House of Representatives on Thursday began its first formal debate on the Iraq war since the 2003 invasion, with GOP leaders saying Congress must restate its support for the mission and Democrats accusing Republicans of rigging the debate.
As the House argued, the Senate quickly brought up and shut down a proposal to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq by year’s end, a move engineered by Republicans to embarrass Democrats in that chamber.
In the House, a non-binding resolution, which lawmakers are not being permitted to amend, came up for discussion as the Pentagon announced a milestone of 2,500 U.S. troops killed in Iraq. The resolution could be voted on Friday.
The resolution may be politically difficult to oppose because it expresses the conviction the United States will prevail in a global war against terrorism, honors troops, and supports a free and safe Iraq.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who visited Iraq at the start of this month, said, “I came from Iraq believing even more strongly that it is not enough for this House to say, ‘We support our troops.’ To the men and women in the field, in harm’s way, that statement rings hollow if we don’t also say we support their mission.”
But the resolution also makes two stipulations to which many Democrats disagree: that the Iraq war is an essential component of the broader war against radical Islamic terrorism, and that any timetable for withdrawal would be against the interests of national security.
Rep. Jane Harman of California, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said she would vote against the resolution, which she called “a press release for staying the course in Iraq.” She said she supports a phased, strategic redeployment of troops to be designed by military commanders, not Congress.
Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a decorated Marine veteran who argues the United States has exhausted its military usefulness in Iraq, said Thursday, “There’s less than 1,000 al Qaeda in Iraq but we’re caught in this civil war between 100,000 Shias and 20,000 Sunnis fighting with each other.
“You know who wants us to stay in Iraq right now?” Murtha said. “Al Qaeda wants us there because it recruits people for them. China wants us there. North Korea wants us there. Russia wants us there. Stay and we’ll pay, not only pay in dollars. . . . I figure it took us through the Reagan administration to pay for the Vietnam War.”
In the Senate, the vote to table an Iraq withdrawal plan came unexpectedly.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., had been trying to round up support within his own party for a proposal for a Dec. 31 timetable for withdrawal. Only it wasn’t Kerry but Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who called up the plan. Democrats balked, saying that wasn’t a fair way to debate it, and they helped reject the move, 93-6. Kerry said he planned to offer his own amendment next week and hoped for a serious debate.
“I think really the Senate ought to give a more appropriate kind of seriousness of purpose, if you will, to debate of this kind of consequence,” Kerry told his colleagues.
House Democrats lost their bid to block the no-amendment rule, on a near party-line vote of 222-194.
“The Republican leadership has turned what could have been a serious debate into a charade,” said Rep. Tom Lantos of California, ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.
House Republicans acknowledged they want the debate to strengthen their position going into the fall midterm elections, but they also defended the resolution as a basic choice. Said Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., “Is it al Qaeda, or is it America?”
They said Democrats want it both ways: to get credit for supporting the troops but insulate themselves from blame when the fighting gets tough. Most Republicans maintain support for the war, while the question divides the Democratic Party.