U.S. Congress Re-Ignites Iraq War Policy Debate

As the US Congress reconvenes this week following a brief recess, the battle over Iraq war policy will soon resume in earnest. Divisions are running deep within the ranks of both the Democrat and Republican ranks, even as antiwar legislators unite across party lines. At the same time, the resurgence of chaos and violence across Iraq will make it more difficult for President Bush and GOP lawmakers to defend the troop surge on the basis that it will succeed in stabilizing the country.

On February 16, seventeen House Republicans crossed the floor to vote in favor of a nonbinding resolution to express disapproval for President Bush’s troop surge in Iraq. The following day, despite a previous failed attempt in the Senate (49 to 47) to debate the war, a second vote in the Senate to advance debate on the resolution passed in the House picked up seven Republican supporters. The final vote of 56 to 34 fell only four votes short of the number needed to launch debate.

The debate will continue with the backdrop of Secretary of State Condoleezaa Rice’s Sunday morning television statement that Congress should not micromanage the Iraq war and recent statements by Vice President Dick Cheney and other Republicans who are publicly stating they are not ruling out military action against Iran.

Still, this increasing bipartisan opposition to the surge will almost certainly be upstaged by internal factional divisions between Democrats in both houses of Congress as they try to craft binding legislation that will obstruct the surge and begin the withdrawal of troops. Consensus between liberal antiwar Democrats and the party’s more centrist and conservative members will not be easily reached. There are also different legislative approaches being considered by Senate and House Democratic leaders.

Senators Joe Biden (D-Del.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Democratic Presidential candidate, and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chair of the Armed Services Committee, are reportedly drafting legislation to set new limits for the US mission in Iraq. Conditions have changed since the 2002 resolution that authorized the invasion – no weapons of mass destruction have been found and Saddam Hussein has been removed from power. A modified resolution could restrict military operations to pursuing al Qaeda in Iraq and training the Iraqi army and police forces. It might also propose the withdrawal of troops not involved in this narrower mission by March 2008.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will discuss the proposal with fellow Democrats in the Senate this week, to gauge their support. Yet any attempt to challenge President Bush’s powers as commander-in-chief is likely to encounter staunch opposition from Senate Republicans, as well as a swift Presidential veto.

A different kind of approach is being taken by Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.), chair of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. He is proposing legislation that makes the granting of President Bush’s $100 billion war request conditional on new standards being met for troop safety and readiness. This includes adequate training and equipment for troops, as well as one-year breaks between deployments. This could well obstruct the troop surge, while placing President Bush and pro-surge Republicans in the invidious position of having to defend sending under-trained and under-equipped troops into battle.

Yet the proposal has drawn sharp criticism from within the Democratic party, while also taking a pounding from pro-war Republicans. When Mr Murtha announced details of his plan in a February 15 interview with the liberal antiwar web site MoveCongress.org, without first building consensus within the party, he instantly alienated Democratic colleagues who represent conservative electorates. Mr Murtha then made no further attempt to promote the plan either within the party or publicly, which enabled pro-war Republicans to gain momentum with claims that the plan represents a ‘slow bleed’ of support for US troops in Iraq.

The timing of Mr Murtha’s announcement was also criticized by antiwar Republicans anxious to build bipartisan consensus. Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), a co-sponsor of the anti-surge House resolution that passed on February 16, said that Mr Murtha’s interview had chased off some much-needed Republican support at a critical time. “If he had made his comments after the vote, we could have picked up five to eight more Republicans,” said Mr Jones.

In a letter to Mr Murtha, Mr Jones also said he was concerned that the plan could withhold critical support for the troops in Iraq, “I believe that we must take great care to ensure that any effort to provide for our armed forces not be used as a proxy for resolving larger issues concerning the war in Iraq,” wrote Mr Jones. “Any attempt to starve the war as a way of bringing it to a conclusion, rather than through a serious policy debate about the best way forward in Iraq, would be wrong.”

Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), leader of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats, also expressed opposition to any plan that could lead to the under-resourcing of US troops in Iraq, “If this is going to be legislation that’s crafted in such a way that holds back resources from our troops, that is a non-starter, an absolute non-starter.”

However, the antiwar Out of Iraq Caucus, which claims a third of the House Democrats, supports Mr Murtha’s plan as a measure that will achieve de-escalation. They argue that Democrats have a responsibility to honor the wishes of the American voters, whose strong antiwar sentiment swept Democrats into the leadership of both houses of Congress in November. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), co-chair of the Out of Iraq Caucus, has said, “Congress has the authority, and I know it has the responsibility, to get us out of there. And we should use every means possible.”

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