WASHINGTON – The House braced Tuesday for an extraordinary debate over the Iraq war with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and majority Democrats poised to tell President Bush his policies “have not worked, will not work and must be changed.”
A vote is expected by Friday on a nonbinding measure that opposes Bush’s recent decision to increase the number of U.S. military personnel in Iraq while pledging support for the troops already there.
“Instead of engaging in personal and partisan attacks over the next three days, we must focus on this question: How is the violence in Iraq most likely to be lessened so that our troops can come home safely and soon?” Pelosi, D-Calif., said in excerpts of her remarks released by her office Tuesday.
“The president’s plan is based on a judgment that the way out of Iraq lies in sending more troops in. History has proven just the opposite. Four previous troop escalations have resulted primarily in escalating levels of violence,” she said.
Democrats expressed confidence the measure would prevail and said they would attempt to use it as the opening move in a campaign to pressure Bush to change course and end U.S. military involvement in the war. More than 3,100 U.S. troops have died in nearly four years of fighting.
Even before formal debate began Tuesday, lawmakers from the two sides took to the floor to express their views.
“As a new member of the House, I feel it is my responsibility to ask serious questions of the president who refuses to take this institution seriously,” said freshman Democrat John Hall of New York.
“Some people from the other side seem to believe that if we pull out of Iraq, that the Iraqi people are going to go back to tending sheep and herding goats. That’s not what’s going to happen,” countered Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga. “If we pull out out of Iraq, what’s going to happen is you are going to see more bloodshed than we have seen in a long time in this world.”
Republicans conceded that the measure was headed for approval and said a few dozen members of the GOP were likely to break ranks and vote for it.
In a reversal, Pelosi and the Democratic leadership decided Monday night not to give Republicans a chance to propose an alternative measure – a move that drew protests from Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the GOP leader.
“At the end of the debate, we will vote on a straightforward proposition: Whether we support the president’s plan or oppose it,” Pelosi said in her prepared remarks. “That vote will signal whether the House has heard the message the American people have sent about this war. The current policies have not worked, will not work and must be changed.”
It was the first debate about the war in either house of Congress since November’s midterm elections, when public opposition to the conflict helped power Democrats to control of the House and Senate.
Bush’s decision last month to deploy an additional 21,500 troops to help stop sectarian violence has quickly become a flashpoint for critics of the war in Congress.
The nonbinding measure states simply that the House “will continue to support and protect” troops serving in Iraq but that it “disapproves” of the troop buildup.
While such legislation can neither force Bush’s hand nor bring the war to a close, the vote could be a politically embarrassing rejection of his Iraq policy and help Democrats reassert congressional oversight of the war.
Each of the House’s 435 members and five delegates will be allotted five minutes to speak on the issue. Democratic leaders said Monday they planned to restrict members to a single vote by week’s end, barring any amendments or a GOP alternative – a tack Republican leaders decried as unfair.
“After promising to make this Congress the most open and honest in history, (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi has effectively shut out both Republicans and Democrats from substantively debating the most important issue of our time,” said Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz.
Pelosi and other Democrats said restricting debate to one measure will force members to go on record on the war without hiding behind political ploys.
“We shouldn’t clutter this debate,” said Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “We must focus on one thing – the men and women that wear the uniform and taking them out of the center of an increasing insurgency and civil war.”
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters Monday he had heard from about 20 Republicans who said they opposed the troop buildup, and from one Democrat reluctant to support the resolution.
This week’s debate will be in sharp contrast to the one in 2002, which authorized Bush to use force if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein did not comply with U.N. weapons inspectors.
That debate resulted in solid margins of support from Republicans and Democrats – a victory for a president buoyed by popular ratings following the Sept. 11 attacks and easily assuring a jittery nation that Hussein posed a gathering threat to the United States.
In October 2002, just over half of the public – 52 percent – approved of Bush’s handling of Iraq in Gallup polling.
But Bush now faces a new political landscape. After 47 months of war, more than 3,100 U.S. troops have died and the justification for the invasion – Saddam’s ties to al-Qaida and development of weapons of mass destruction – has been discredited with a majority of the public. Democrats are in charge and public approval of Bush’s handling of Iraq is now at 32 percent, the lowest in AP-Ipsos polling.
As the House moved toward debate this week, Senate Republicans opposed to Bush’s Iraq plan sought to revive a vote on a similar resolution.
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., proposed Monday attaching his resolution to a must-pass budget bill.
“As the House of Representatives debates the paramount issue of our time, we are dithering on the sidelines,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a co-sponsor of Warner’s resolution.
Warner is considered unlikely to be successful this time around because Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will probably insist other GOP resolutions on Iraq be considered. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has opposed considering multiple resolutions, saying they would muddy the debate.
Frustrated by the stalemate, Warner said Monday he would keep trying.
“Our concerns are heartfelt” and “not driven by political motivation,” he said.
Text of the House Iraq resolution
Text of the Democratic resolution expressing disapproval of President Bush’s troop increase in Iraq that the House will debate this week:
Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), that -
(1) Congress and the American people will continue to support and protect the members of the United States Armed Forces who are serving or who have served bravely and honorably in Iraq; and
(2) Congress disapproves of the decision of President George W. Bush announced on January 10, 2007, to deploy more than 20,000 additional United States combat troops to Iraq.