WASHINGTON -- For the first time since the United States led the invasion of Iraq more than three years ago, members of Congress engaged in a formal debate over the war yesterday.
But the action on the House and Senate floors was more a tune-up for the fall congressional campaigns than a high-minded discussion of US foreign policy. In a reflection of the unpredictable politics surrounding war, Republicans and Democrats launched opposing lines of attack -- relying on arguments both sides are confident will resonate with voters in midterm elections this fall.
``We in this Congress must show the same steely resolve as those men and women on United Flight 93 -- the same sense of duty as the first-responders who headed up the stairs of the Twin Towers," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican. ``The alternative would be to cut and run and wait for [terrorists] to regroup and bring the terror back to our shores."
``This is a war that is a grotesque mistake," countered House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat. ``The administration insists on continuing to dig a hole. They refuse to come up and see the light on this."
Both the House and the Senate held Iraq war debates yesterday on discussions that members of both parties have clamored for. Democrats wanted a forum to attack the Bush administration for everything from faulty prewar intelligence to fraud and abuses by private contractors in Iraq. Republicans sought a platform to tout progress in fighting terrorism -- and to exploit Democratic divisions over the way to proceed in Iraq.
Polls have suggested rising public dismay about the war in Iraq, but events of recent days -- the death of terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a US airstrike, the installation of a new Iraqi government, President Bush's daring, top-secret visit to Baghdad -- appear to have reversed that slide, at least temporarily. A USA Today/Gallup Poll released earlier this week suggested that 47 percent of respondents believe the war is going well, up from 38 percent in March.
Fast-changing events on the ground, though, leave the war's impact on November's congressional elections unclear. Nevertheless, the elections -- which will determine which party controls Congress for the next two years -- clearly were the subtext to yesterday's debate.
So, on the day the government announced the death of the 2,500th American service member in Iraq, Democrats and Republicans took turns transforming their party's talking points into official speeches. The Pentagon even prepared a 74-page briefing book for the occasion, and distributed it to Republicans and some Democrats.
Indeed, GOP leaders were so anxious for the debate that Senate Republicans formally introduced Senator John F. Kerry's proposal to withdraw virtually all troops from Iraq by the end of this year.
``It's time to step up and be counted," said Senate majority whip Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. ``Do we want to stay and finish the job and continue to protect America, or do we want to send a message to the terrorists -- just when we've got them on the run -- that we're going to run?"
Kerry's proposal was set aside in a 93-to-6 vote, an unmistakable sign of Democratic divisions over the appropriate course in Iraq. Six of the Senate's 44 Democrats, including Kerry and his colleague from Massachusetts, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, voted for it. Kerry said he would reintroduce the proposal next week, when he said a fuller debate will be possible.
``I think really the Senate ought to give a more appropriate kind of seriousness of purpose" to his proposal to withdraw troops, said Kerry, who is working with Senator Russell Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, to rally support for the proposal. Kerry and his aides would not estimate the level of support they expect, but one Democratic aide said the bid is unlikely to get more than 10 votes.
For all the anticipation, yesterday's House discussion lacked the intensity and drama of grand war debates from years past.
After Hastert officially started the debate, most legislators left the chamber for meetings and hearings elsewhere, leaving their colleagues' words to echo in a nearly empty room. The occasional ``oohs" and ``aahs" heard around the Capitol complex yesterday were reactions to World Cup soccer matches instead of lawmakers' eloquence or insight on the House floor.
Democrats blasted President Bush for mistakes they said he made in the invasion and reconstruction of Iraq, and demanded the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. They relished the opportunity to attack Bush in an area where voters have held him in high regard: keeping the country safe.
``Being bogged down in Iraq indefinitely will make us less safe," said Representative Rosa DeLauro , a Connecticut Democrat. ``Our country deserves so much better."
``The Bush administration cannot deny that it misled the world about the reasons for war in Iraq," added Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat who chairs the congressional ``Out of Iraq" caucus.
House Republicans did not allow Democrats to set the terms of the debate, however. They proposed a resolution that explicitly links the need to bring stability to Iraq to the broader war on terrorism.
``What's at stake in Iraq is the war on terror," said Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican. ``That is the central battlefield of this particular moment."
Republicans warned Democrats that their criticism of the war could make the mission more difficult for US troops.
``I'm not afraid we will lose the war in Iraq, [but] I'm deeply concerned we will lose the war in Iraq here at home," said Representative Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican whose support for the war has become a major issue in his reelection campaign. ``[Terrorists] are now there, and they think we can win because they believe we will leave too soon."
Republicans blocked Democrats from offering amendments to the resolution, prompting Democrats to contend it was a scheme designed to make them look as though they oppose antiterrorism efforts.
``What you're saying is this war is just a political tool to be used in elections," said Representative Louise Slaughter of New York, the top Democrat on the House Rules Committee.
But Republicans said it was Democrats who were playing politics with the war.
``Our enemies do not have a first-Tuesday-in-November strategy," said Representative Michael J. Rogers, a Michigan Republican .
Representative Barney Frank, a Newton Democrat, was succinct about the political maneuvering: ``I just hope that the members of parliament in Iraq who hear about this will remember a very important point: Please do not try this at home."