Good news and bad

Although it did so largely for the wrong reason, the House finally held its first full-scale debate on the war in Iraq, culminating in a 256-153 vote opposing an arbitrary date for “withdrawal and/or redeployment” from Iraq.

The point of the exercise was for the Republican leadership to trap Democratic critics of the war into votes that could be used against them in the elections this fall. Republicans came armed with 74 pages of White House-supplied talking points and prepared to road-test such campaign charges as “defeatist” and “cut and run.”

While partisan at times, the debate was far more serious than one might expect based on past rhetoric. In part, this was because of the somber milestone of the 2,500th U.S. military death. And in part it was because both parties _ especially the Republicans _ have an uneasy sense that the voters are no longer buying simpleminded rationales for the war and are starting to ask hard questions about what exactly we’re doing in Iraq and how long we’re going to be there doing it.

The Senate brushed aside, 93-6, a Republican-inspired attempt to get Democrats to go on record as favoring a major reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq in 2007. But the senators did take a more serious step _ and did it unanimously _ by insisting that funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan be treated as a regular, on-the-books item in the federal budget. The funding so far has been treated as a one-time, off-budget emergency measure. Congress has just sent the president the ninth such emergency measure, $94.5 billion, combining Katrina relief with almost $66 billion for the wars.

Finally addressing the Iraq war could have two beneficial effects on the House. It could end the endless rehashing of how we got into the war and the early mistakes in running it. It may break the Republicans’ lockstep deference to President Bush on the conduct of the war and it may force Democrats to develop a coherent position on how they do any better.

To paraphrase an expression, wars are too important to be left to presidents.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)