News Analysis: Ugly debate over Iraq: An omen for Congress?

Posted in United States | 21-Nov-05 | Author: Carl Hulse| Source: International Herald Tribune

Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and a security officer after a closed-door meeting on Friday of House Republicans.
Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and a security officer after a closed-door meeting on Friday of House Republicans.
It was a bitter and fitting final note for a discordant U.S. Congress.

The ugly debate in the House of Representatives last Friday over the Iraq war served as an emotional send-off for this week's Thanksgiving holiday recess, capturing perfectly the political tensions coursing through the House and Senate in light of President George W. Bush's slumping popularity, serious party policy fights, spreading ethics investigations and the approach of crucial midterm elections in less than a year.

Capitol Hill was always certain to be swept up in brutal political gamesmanship as lawmakers headed into 2006 - the midpoint of this second presidential term and, perhaps, a chance for Democrats to cut into Republican majorities or even seize power in one chamber or the other.

The ferocity of the fight in the House over a withdrawal from Iraq shows that the war may dominate discussion in the coming electoral contest. And the course of events in Iraq - whether a new government takes hold, whether violence continues and whether U.S. troops are still committed in large numbers and killed by the scores each month - is likely to be of prime political consequence in Washington.

But when lawmakers return to Washington next month they face other immediate challenges that also carry substantial political risks.

Some are matters related to the war, like the continuing debate on the treatment of detainees in the campaign against global terrorism. Others are the kind of domestic pocketbook issues that Congress must deal with every year - including contentious tax and spending measures - but which have been impossible to resolve this year, even with one party in control of both the House and the Senate.

Representative Mark Foley, Republican of Florida, said he thought the war debate was worthwhile; it sent a reassuring message to troops in Iraq. But he found the tone "absolutely unnecessary, demeaning and potentially destructive.

"We have so many huge problems, and it is frustrating to somebody like myself when we are reduced to partisan fire with bazookas," Foley said.

The House, Foley said, is as polarized as he has seen it during his decade in office.

As majority leader, Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri is in the eye of the Congressional storm.
As majority leader, Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri is in the eye of the Congressional storm.
Among developments that have knocked Republicans badly off course and provided opportunities for Democrats, who continue to have problems of their own: The botched response to Hurricane Katrina; the indictment of Representative Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas; soaring fuel costs; a failed U.S. Supreme Court nomination; charges against a vice presidential aide in a case related to prewar intelligence; growing public unease about the war; and off-year election victories by Democrats.

The litany has Congress members taking stock of their political fortunes and acting accordingly. "Bad poll numbers on your side unite your opponents and divide you a little bit," said Representative Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri.

The responses to poll numbers cited by Blunt were on display last week in an unusually messy congressional windup. Democrats united to force House Republicans to look solely to their own membership to win approval of spending and budget measures that carried a political price, given their reductions in spending on an array of social programs - cuts ready-made for campaign attacks.

As a result, some Republicans chose to part company with their colleagues. Twenty-two defectors joined with the Democrats to send a major health and education spending bill to a stunning defeat, the first such loss in a decade for the take-no-prisoners Republican majority.

In a vote on a separate measure that was narrowly approved, 14 Republicans opposed $50 billion in spending cuts over five years despite major concessions by their leadership to win moderate support. Within hours of that vote, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out news releases to the districts of 50 lawmakers who had backed the measure to make sure voters heard that their representatives had "blindly rubberstamped" the leadership's plan.

The rising political animosity was evident in the tone of the House debate on the fiscal bills and Iraq. Republicans and Democrats shouted, howled and slung insults in the House on Friday as a debate over whether to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq descended into fury over Bush's handling of the war and a call by a leading Democrat, Representative John Murtha of Pennsylvania, to bring the troops home.

Democratic Representatives John P. Murtha, top, and William J. Jefferson after Mr. Murtha's Iraq resolution.
Democratic Representatives John P. Murtha, top, and William J. Jefferson after Mr. Murtha's Iraq resolution.
The battle boiled over when Representative Jean Schmidt, Republican of Ohio, told of a phone call she had just received from a Marine colonel.

"He asked me to send Congress a message: Stay the course," Schmidt said. "He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message: that cowards cut and run, marines never do."

Democrats booed and shouted Schmidt down in her attack on Murtha, a Vietnam veteran and one of the House's most respected members on military matters. They brought the House to a standstill, and moments later, Representative Harold Ford, Democrat of Tennessee, charged across the aisle to the Republican side screaming that Schmidt's attack had been unwarranted. A motion calling for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, brought forward by Republicans to put Democrats on the spot, was defeated, 403 to 3, late Friday night.

"It is a reality that no one is finished debating the war," Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia, vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, said Saturday, adding that he expected the passions evoked Friday to cool somewhat over the recess. But he said Republicans had forced the vote out of frustration with Democratic tactics. "We had just had it with Democrats running around saying President Bush lied," he said. It was time for us to call their bluff."

The atmosphere and progress in the Senate were noticeably better. Republican senators set their sights lower on spending cuts and approved their budget bill weeks ago. They were able to attract significant Democratic support for tax cuts and even had a bipartisan vote pressing the administration to move more aggressively to secure Iraq to allow a troop withdrawal.

But the Senate has serious divisions of its own. Just a few months ago, it was on the brink of a historic rules showdown over judicial filibusters, a subject that could resurface should Democrats move to block Bush's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Samuel Alito Jr.

Eric Schmitt contributed to this article.