WASHINGTON – Politics are permeating election-year debates on Iraq in the House and Senate, where Republicans and Democrats alike are carefully staking out their positions on the increasingly unpopular war.
Seeking an advantage, House Republicans aim to force Democrats to go on record supporting President Bush's wartime policies by staging a vote as early as Thursday on a GOP resolution that praises U.S. troops and rejects setting "an arbitrary date" for withdrawing them from Iraq.
"The fundamental question in this debate is: Are we going to confront the threat of terrorism and defeat it, or will we relent and retreat and hope the problem goes away?" House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said, providing a preview of the possible GOP line of attack should Democrats oppose the resolution.
Across Capitol Hill, similar partisan discourse on the Iraq war is certain when Sen. John Kerry, a potential 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, introduces an amendment to an annual military measure that calls for the administration to redeploy combat forces from that war zone by year's end.
It's a position that most Senate members — including many of Kerry's fellow Democrats — don't share.
"If it's a date certain — absolutely everyone must be gone by then — I think that's less of what we're interested in," said Sen.Jack Reed, D-R.I., part of a Senate Democratic group trying to come up with a different amendment that better reflects a consensus among Senate Democrats on the way forward in Iraq.
The double-barreled debates planned for Thursday come five months before congressional elections. Opinion polls show voters are frustrated with the Iraq war and favor Democrats to control Congress instead of the Republicans who now run the show.
Approval of Bush's handling of Iraq has dipped to 33 percent, a new low, in the most recent AP-Ipsos Poll. The poll, taken last week before the announcement of the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, found that 59 percent of adults said the United States made a mistake in going to war in Iraq — the highest level yet in AP-Ipsos polling.
Democrats dismiss the House GOP resolution as nothing more than political theatrics and are expected to use the debate to rail against Bush's wartime policies. Yet Democrats are mindful that voting against such a resolution could leave them vulnerable to attacks by Republicans, who could claim that Democrats who opposed the resolution don't support U.S. troops and advocate a "cut-and-run" strategy.
Senate Republicans, for their part, welcome an Iraq discussion that GOP aides say could showcase Democratic Party divisions on the war.
Struggling to find common ground, Democrats appear to be divided into three camps. Some want troops to leave Iraq this year. Others object to setting any kind of timetable. A number of them want the United States to start redeploying forces by year's end but don't want to set a date when all troops should be out.
Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate are trying to get their members to coalesce around draft proposals that call for the administration to start redeploying U.S. troops by year's end, according to Democratic officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the proposals were not final.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and her lieutenants want to offer an alternative to the GOP resolution that reflects the Democrats' position but they have faced difficulty in getting all factions of their rank-and-file on board.
Officials said the draft being floated in the House says that troops should start coming home this year but does not specify when all forces should be out of Iraq. One official said the draft also calls for further force reductions pegged to goals Iraqis reach as they rewrite their constitution.
In the Senate, several Democrats were trying to unite around a "consensus amendment" on withdrawing troops to avoid votes on narrow amendments, like Kerry’s that could further highlight Democratic differences on Iraq.
Senate Democrats appeared to agree that the United States should start withdrawing troops this year but, officials said, disagreed over what to do thereafter — whether to call for all troops to be out by the end of 2007 or not specify an end-date.
It was unclear whether the group could come up with a proposal that would be strong enough to satisfy Kerry and Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.
The two Democrats have proposed separate amendments that call for most troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2006. They also are believed to be positioning themselves for Democratic presidential bids, which some officials say may be complicating discussions.