WASHINGTON -- At a meeting with senior citizens in Wrentham this week, Representative James McGovern was ready to talk about the sweeping Medicare prescription drug plan. Instead, the first question a senior at the event asked the Worcester Democrat was, ''When are we getting out of Iraq?"
The war has gone on for more than 2 1/2 years, but the debate over the action escalated dramatically in the past week, as the House of Representatives engaged in a nasty fight over the reasons for the war and the best way to end it.
Now, the war of words is likely to continue across the nation during Thanksgiving week, as Americans sit down to holiday meals and debate the future of the war -- which has grown more and more unpopular as US deaths have mounted and Iraq remains unstable. The White House and members of Congress, meanwhile, are using the holiday week to make their cases to an increasingly skeptical electorate.
The Republican National Committee is running television ads this week saying that Democrats who contend that the White House misused intelligence to justify the war had publicly endorsed those same conclusions before the invasion. Meanwhile, the liberal activist group MoveOn.org is running an emotionally charged ad starting on Thanksgiving Day showing a family gathered around a holiday table; an empty chair suggests that a loved one, a soldier sent to Iraq, is missing.
''Some folks won't be home this holiday season," an announcer intones, as a crying woman is comforted by her family. ''Their president misled America to send them in and has no plan to get them out."
President Bush is not being spared during the holiday week. A dozen war protesters were arrested yesterday for setting up camp near the president's home in Crawford, Texas, where he is spending Thanksgiving. Cindy Sheehan, an antiwar activist whose son died last year in Iraq, is planning to arrive at the camp later this week.
Bickering over the war has been building for months, with Democrats -- even those who voted for the war resolution -- accusing the White House of selectively using intelligence to buttress its argument to invade Iraq. The White House and sympathetic Republicans have called critics of the war ''irresponsible" for attacking the president and suggesting a scheduled retreat, which the White House says damages troop morale.
But the argument reached a nasty and unusually personal level last week, when Representative John Murtha, a hawkish Democrat from Pennsylvania, startled his colleagues by calling for a speedy pullout from Iraq. Murtha, a decorated Marine who fought in Vietnam and is known as a strong supporter of the Pentagon, said last week that ''the US cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily" and that ''it is time to bring [the troops] home."
The heated session, which lasted well into the night, marked a rare Friday night floor meeting and was one of a handful of occasions when the House has had an all-out debate over the war since the invasion started in March 2003. The ensuing brouhaha on Capitol Hill -- which included the suggestion by Representative Jean Schmidt, Republican of Ohio, that Murtha's position was that of a ''coward," spurring boos and catcalls -- followed lawmakers home as they returned to their districts for a two-week Thanksgiving break.
Representative Jeb Bradley, Republican of New Hampshire, said his constituents asked him about the floor debate when he came back to the Granite State. Bradley said he was disappointed to hear the attacks on Murtha, but explained to New Hampshire residents that he thought a pullout is a bad idea.
''I think the key ingredient is getting our troops home, which is what everyone wants," Bradley said. He added that he hoped the December elections would put Iraq on the path to running itself so that American troops can leave.
McGovern said the question of Iraq has come up virtually everywhere he has traveled in his district during the recess. And Representative John Tierney, a Salem Democrat, said people approached him in the airport and at a town meeting Saturday, remarking on the debate and asking when the war would end.
''It seemed that the buzz was much more intensified. People are really engaged," said Tierney, who voted against the 2002 resolution authorizing force in Iraq.
After a speech slamming Democrats last week, Vice President Dick Cheney offered a somewhat more measured defense of the Bush administration policies on Tuesday, trying to balance respect for Murtha with continued disgust with Murtha's fellow Democrats who suggest the White House manipulated intelligence to win support for the war. Senator Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, entered the fray while addressing the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations on Tuesday, urging Bush to ''take the politics out of Iraq once and for all," admit mistakes, and work with Democrats to ''find a responsible way out."
Senator Edward M. Kennedy said the White House ''misled" Congress and the American public about the war, publicly smeared those who disagreed with the president, and ''rewarded" those who backed Bush's drive to war. While Cheney took Murtha and Democrats to task for daring to suggest a speedy withdrawal, Bush awarded former CIA director George Tenet -- an administration loyalist whose agency helped gather the intelligence used to justify the invasion -- the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Kennedy noted in an interview.
''It's difficult for me to see how the vice president can do this with a serious face," the Massachusetts Democrat said of Cheney's criticism of Murtha. ''These have been the ones who have rewarded the manipulators, and those who have been a part of the whole field of failed policy."
Representative Charles Bass, a New Hampshire Republican, said he is telling constituents that it may be necessary to keep US troops in the region for an extended period because of US interest in Middle East stability. ''Some just shook their heads. But people are listening. That's all I can expect," Bass said.