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Congress leaps into war debate
Republicans and Democrats provided a preview of the run-up to November's elections.
WASHINGTON -- Republicans painted Democrats as quitters who advocate a cut-and-run strategy in Iraq. Democrats derided Republicans as foot soldiers for President Bush who refuse to challenge him.
It's not the post-Labor Day congressional campaign season just yet. But you wouldn't know that from divisive election-year debates on Iraq that consumed Congress on Thursday.
"The Republican Congress sat and watched the administration make mistake after mistake after mistake," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill.
In turn, Rep. Charles Norwood, R-Ga., attacked war critics as defeatists who do not deserve re-election. "Many, not all, on the other side of the aisle lack the will to win," he said.
Across Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats alike provided a preview of potential strategies for discussing the 3-year-old conflict in the run-up to November's midterm elections.
As the U.S. death toll in Iraq reached 2,500, the Senate soundly rejected a call to withdraw combat troops by year's end, and House Republicans laid the groundwork for their own vote.
In a move Democrats criticized as gamesmanship, Senate Republicans brought up the withdrawal measure and quickly dispatched it -- for now -- on a 93-6 vote.
The proposal would have allowed "only forces that are critical to completing the mission of standing up Iraqi security forces" to remain in Iraq in 2007.
In a daylong House debate, Republicans defended the Iraq war as a key part of the global fight against terrorism while Democrats assailed President Bush's war policies and called for a new direction in the conflict.
"When our freedom is challenged, Americans do not run," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said in remarks laden with references to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"This is a war that is a grotesque mistake," countered House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. She called for a fresh strategy -- "one that will make us safer, strengthen our military, and restore our reputation in the world."
Republicans moved toward a vote on a resolution to reject any timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces.
Congress roared into debate on the three-year conflict four months before midterm elections that will decide the control of both the House and Senate -- and as Bush was trying to rebuild waning public support for the conflict.
The administration was so determined to get its message out that the Pentagon distributed a highly unusual 74-page "debate prep book" filled with ready-made answers for criticism of the war.
"We cannot cut and run," the Pentagon battle plan says at one point, anticipating Democratic calls for a troop withdrawal on a fixed timetable.
As the debates got underway, the Senate sent the president an additional $66 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan -- legislation Bush promptly signed -- while the Pentagon announced the U.S. death toll for the war had reached 2,500.
"It's a number," White House press secretary Tony Snow said of the grim milestone. He said that Bush "feels very deeply the pain that the families feel."
The president has tried to rally support for the Iraq war in the days since the death of terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the recent completion of a new Iraqi government.
But as the death toll and price tag of the conflict continue to rise, opinion polls show voters increasingly frustrated with the war and favoring Democrats to control Congress instead of the Republicans who now run the show.
Sensitive to those political realities, Republicans in both the Senate and House sought to put lawmakers of both parties on record on an issue certain to be central in this fall's congressional elections.
The Senate vote unfolded unexpectedly as the second-ranking leader, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., introduced legislation he said was taken from a proposal by Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat and war critic. It called for Bush to agree with the Iraqi government on a schedule for withdrawal of combat troops by Dec. 31, 2006.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said if the United States withdrew prematurely, "I am absolutely convinced the terrorists would see this as vindication." He predicted terrorism would spread around the world, and eventually reach the United States if the United States were to "cut and run" before Iraq can defend itself.
Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada shot back: "Two things that don't exist in Iraq and have not, weapons of mass destruction, and cutting and running."
He accused Republicans of political gamesmanship and sought to curtail floor debate on the proposal. The vote occurred quickly.
Kerry called the vote "fictitious" and promised further debate next week on the issue. He and five other Democrats were in the minority on the vote -- Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Barbara Boxer of California, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.
Senate Republicans claimed victory with the lopsided tally. "This sent a good message that the United States Senate overwhelmingly opposes a cut-and-run strategy," said John Cornyn of Texas.
In the House, partisan divisions were clear.
"In this fight for the future of peace, freedom and democracy in the Middle East and around the globe, winning should be our only option," Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., said, sticking to the GOP script.
"Stay and we'll pay," countered Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who criticized "the failed policy of this administration" and lamented the lives lost, billions of dollars spent and the bruised U.S. image since the war started. "It's time to redeploy," he said.
Republicans arranged for the debate to culminate in a vote on a resolution that praises U.S. troops, labels the Iraq war part of the larger global fight against terrorism and says an "arbitrary date for the withdrawal or redeployment" of troops is not in the national interest.
Democrats decried the debate as a sham, saying Republicans promised an open discussion but, instead, stacked the deck in their favor by limiting debate to 10 hours and barring any amendments. They also complained that Republicans refused to allow them to present an alternative resolution -- though Democrats weren't able to agree on just what to offer.