WASHINGTON — Back in 1971, Vietnam veteran John Kerry gave a face to the antiwar movement with a single question in televised testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
This week, Senator Kerry reprised the argument before the same panel: "How many of you here at this table believe what's happening [in Iraq] is a mistake today?" he asked, as the Foreign Relations Committee took the first congressional step opposing the strategy in Iraq since lawmakers authorized the use of force in 2002.
In the end, 12 senators – all the Democrats on the panel plus one Republican, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska – backed a non-binding resolution opposing President Bush's "new way forward" in Iraq. The vote came 16 hours after Mr. Bush appealed to lawmakers, in his State of the Union address, to give his plan to add 21,500 US troops to the forces fighting in Iraq "a chance to work."
As the resolution moves to the full Senate next week, it's clear that deep disagreements exist within each party over how best to express doubts about the Iraq war. The result is a vivid – and very public – grappling over the terms of their disagreement.
At issue is whether the new Democrat-controlled Congress should aim for the strongest resolution opposing the troop buildup, or the one most likely to draw the largest bipartisan vote.
Even Republican senators on the foreign relations panel who did not vote for the resolution expressed serious doubts about the way the president is waging the war. But these were not enough to overcome their worries that their words could have unintended consequences – from undermining US troops to further isolating a commander in chief determined to go his own way.
"The president is deeply invested in this plan, and the deployments opposed by the resolution have already begun," warned Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, the committee's ranking Republican, before the vote on Wednesday. "This resolution will increase the divide between the executive and legislative branches that is already unacceptably wide," he added, cautioning his colleagues not to give in to frustration with a White House that has not listened to the Congress in the past.
Those concerns are at the center of intense negotiations, as senators grapple with how to find words that will bring enough Republicans on board to get the attention of the White House, but not send a message of defeat to the troops.
The White House and its supporters on Capitol Hill want to avoid any language that will undercut the troops or undermine the mission of Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, whom the Senate on Wednesday unanimously confirmed to command US and multinational forces in Iraq.
"The goal is to try to salvage this thing and not send additional troops over with a message of disapproval from the Congress," says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who supports the president on sending more troops to Iraq.
In a first move toward achieving a bipartisan consensus, the resolution's supporters agreed to drop any reference to the president's "escalating" the war in Iraq. For many Republicans, it's a loaded term that both recalls the Vietnam quagmire and appears to give Congress a claim to "micromanage" the commander in chief. Sens. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine, and Hagel, cosponsors of the resolution, agreed to drop it.
"We can't have 535 commanders in chief, and if you think the US is doomed to fail, please remember that the enemy is listening," says Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who opposes the resolution.
In a sharp disagreement with Kerry, Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia cautioned colleagues to avoid comparisons between the Iraq war and the Vietnam War. "We're losing the support of a lot of people who supported the Vietnam War and who have problems with this [war in Iraq] if we try to lump [them] together," he said.
In the Vietnam era, senators also struggled to maintain a distinction between opposing Vietnam War policy and opposing the US forces fighting it.
"The dean of the antiwar resolutions in Vietnam, [Idaho's Democratic] Sen. Frank Church, was constantly trying to make this distinction," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Boston University. In the congressional debate over the Iraq war, "there's a very similar rhetorical strategy now to that period," he adds.
In the next few days, sponsors of a second resolution opposing the new White House strategy on the war – especially the involvement of US forces in combating sectarian violence – will be trying to line up backers. "Our resolution does not provide a reduction of the US forces now or provide a timetable, but it calls on the president to consider all options," specifically along the lines of the Iraq Study Group recommendations, says Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee.
After the vote of the Foreign Relations Committee, backers of the alternative resolution – Senator Warner and cosponsors Susan Collins (R) of Maine, Norm Coleman (R) of Minnesota, and Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska – said they had five other Democratic cosponsors for it. Both resolutions could come to the floor as early as next Wednesday.
Some criticize the resolutions as soft-pedaling. "This is not a time for legislative nuancing," said Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin Wednesday. "This is a time to stop the needless deaths of American troops in Iraq."