US House Iraq Resolution: The Surge of Congressional Politics

This week’s debate in the US House of Representatives ended with the predicted passage of a non-binding resolution that rejects President Bush’s troop surge in Iraq and sets the tone for a more confrontational relationship between Congress and the White House.

Yet with only 17 out of 201 Republicans crossing the floor to vote for the resolution, the final count of 246 to 182 hardly amounts to a convincing bipartisan revolt. Meanwhile, the stage is now set for clashes within the Democratic party as the factions try to agree on binding measures to thwart the President’s surge while emphasizing the party’s support for the troops in Iraq.

It was a week of high political drama by any standards. While fiery speeches from both sides of the chamber invoked ‘the greats’ from Abraham Lincoln to CS Lewis, the GOP swung into action behind the scenes with a range of maneuvers to counter the prospect of mass defections.

In a letter dated February 13 (Tuesday), Reps. John Shadegg of Arizona (Chair of the House Republican Policy Committee) and Pete Hoekstra of Michigan (top Republican, House Intelligence Committee) urged GOP members to avoid debating the war during their speeches: “If we let the Democrats force us into a debate on the surge or the current situation in Iraq, we lose. Rather, the debate must be about the global threat of the radical Islamist movement.” Over the next three days, it became clear that this tactic had been taken up by scores of party faithful.

On Wednesday, President Bush held a last-minute press conference at 11 a.m., the same time that Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), who co-authored the resolution, was scheduled to take the floor and lead anti-surge Republicans speaking in favor of the resolution. This was viewed as a ‘remarkable coincidence’ by Democratic leaders.

Then on Thursday, the Republican Study Committee issued a press release accusing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (R-Calif.) of violating copyright laws by posting C-SPAN footage of the House debate on her blog, The Gavel. However, the committee was forced to retract their accusation two hours later, after learning that Congress owns the copyright and not C-SPAN.

Although the anti-surge resolution is non-binding and is not in itself considered a threat to President Bush, it nevertheless fires the first salvo at his Iraq policy. Speaker Pelosi told the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, “Well, the president, on the one hand, says that this is just a resolution that doesn’t really mean that much and, on the other hand, the White House is working very hard to stop Republicans from voting for it.”

Democrats readily united behind the non-binding resolution to identify what they don’t want (the surge); however, the greater test of party unity will be played out as they work to reach consensus regarding which binding measure should be used to block the troop surge.

Speaker Pelosi has said that no final decisions have been made with respect to binding legislation. However, she said she supports measures proposed by Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.) to restrict troop deployments by restricting war funding according to new conditions including: giving troops at least one year to rest between deployments, training troops in urban warfare and counterinsurgency, and providing appropriate safety equipment. Attaching these conditions to President Bush’s latest funding request could well prevent most of his proposed troop surge.

“We’re going to make sure people understand we’re supporting the troops and protecting the troops,” Rep. Murtha told antiwar group Win Without War. “On the other hand, we are going to stop this surge.”

The Democratic leadership is under pressure to go beyond the non-binding resolution, especially from the party’s anti-war activists who will have a major hand in determining the 2008 Democratic presidential candidate.

Meanwhile, there is also the growing anti-war sentiment of US voters, which put the Democrats in control of both Houses of Congress following the mid-term elections in November. According to polls taken at the time of the November elections, most Americans favored a twelve-month deadline for bringing US troops home from Iraq.

Thus, while the resolution passed after this week’s marathon debate is non-binding, it further commits the Democrats to honoring their election promise to force a military de-escalation in Iraq. The drama now looks set to continue within the party, as moderates clash with liberals over the extent to which Congress should use its control over the purse strings to confront the President and change the US course in Iraq.

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