WASHINGTON — The Senate deadlocked just 90 minutes into a debate last week over President Bush's "new way forward" in Iraq. Now the action shifts to the House, where Democrats aim for an up-or-down vote on his policy.
As in the Senate, that resolution would be nonbinding on Mr. Bush, but no one would know it, judging from the intense disputes – within and between political parties – over the terms of disagreement. Democrats say Senate Republicans blocked the vote primarily to protect the president. Republicans say Democrats rigged the rules to suppress minority rights.
At issue is more than a test of wills. It's how to frame the terms of opposition to a war that has lost public support and strained US relations with the rest of the world.
The vote – or nonvote – on the resolution is also politically toxic. Opposition to the war helped sweep Republicans out of control in the House and Senate in 2006. But if the issue is mishandled, it could do the same to Democrats – or topple even more GOP careers – in 2008.
The Senate's version of a resolution against a proposed surge of 21,500 US troops in Iraq evolved into five pages of "whereas" clauses, many added to bring another vote or two on board.
By contrast, House Democrats say they intend to keep it simple. Their resolution, to be announced Monday, is expected to have two parts: One affirms that Congress will continue to support US troops who have been committed to the war in Iraq; the other affirms that members do not agree with the proposed escalation.
"This is an up-or-down vote on the policy enunciated by the president. We owe it to our constituents to have that," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the Democratic caucus chair, after a caucus meeting on Iraq last week. The House is planning three days of debate, with each member allowed five minutes to speak.
Meanwhile, House GOP leaders call the coming vote "a meaningless political stunt ... that demoralizes US troops." Like Senate Republicans, they are pushing Democrats to allow a separate up-or-down vote on a resolution not to cut off war funding.
"If Democrats are serious about ending the war, they should bring a real resolution to the floor about whether to cut funding," House Republican leader John Boehner said last week.
Senate Republicans also insist that senators have an opportunity to vote on a resolution not to cut off funding to the troops. Democratic majority leader Harry Reid refused to allow that vote. In return, all but two Republicans voted to block the resolution against the troop surge (proposed by Sens. John Warner (R) of Virginia and Carl Levin (D) of Michigan), which Democrats wanted to proceed.
"Democrats and antiwar Republicans are sending political signals with this vote," says Randall Woods, a historian at the University of Arkansas, who writes on congressional antiwar politics. "They need to show the American people that they are voicing opposition to the war, yet not appear soft on national security," he says. "They're fighting for their [political] lives."
As in previous war votes, the language of the resolutions has been crafted to maximize political peril for the opposition. But for the first time since US forces went into Iraq in 2003, Democrats are setting the timing and terms of war votes, and they are determined to not rush into a vote they are likely to lose.
It's a tactic Republicans have used in the past to embarrass Democrats who oppose Bush's war strategy – and one that some GOP leaders now say they regret.
When Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania, a longtime friend of the military, broke with the White House in November 2005 and proposed an immediate, phased withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, House GOP leaders rushed a recorded vote to express the sense of the House that the deployment of US forces in Iraq "be terminated immediately." The language was crafted to embarrass Representative Murtha and to squelch any antiwar momentum from his high-profile reversal on the war. As expected, the vote failed, 3-403.
Some Republican leaders now say that strategy of forced, preemptive votes was a mistake. "It was clearly a ploy. Everybody in American knew it was a ploy, and we paid a price in November," said Rep. Adam Putnam (R) of Florida, the new House Republican conference chairman, last week.
Meanwhile, Murtha, who now chairs the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, is laying groundwork for a vote on funding as early as mid-March, when the House is expected to take up Bush's $99.6 billion war funding request for fiscal 2007. He says he aims to build a robust case for redirecting spending to adequately equip and train US forces, rather than to fund a troop surge.
"Our concern is the proper supply and backup to the troops already in theater, as we transform this mission to one where we can be successful," says Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) of Ohio, a member of the defense subcommittee.
The US Senate and House of Representatives have voted dozens of times on resolutions, funding measures, and amendments pertaining to the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Below is an abbreviated record of their votes.
107th Congress: Republicans control the House (221-214*); Democrats control the Senate (51-49*)
October: A joint resolution is approved to authorize use of armed forces against Iraq (House 296-133, Senate 77-23).
• House rejects Barbara Lee amendment urging peaceful means to resolve the issue (72-355).
• House rejects amendment to require the president to seek congressional authority before using military force against Iraq without a UN resolution (155-270).
• • •
108th Congress: Republicans control House (229-204*) and Senate (51-48*)
April: Congress approves $78.5 billion in emergency war funding (House by voice vote, Senate by unanimous consent).
• Senate rejects amendment calling on the president to raise revenues to offset Iraq war costs (18-79).
October: Senate rejects amendment to offset Iraqi reconstruction costs by eliminating income-tax cuts enacted in 2001 for top 1 percent of earners (42-57).
• Senate adopts Lindsey Graham amendment to express the sense of Congress that Saddam Hussein's removal has enhanced the security of Israel and other US allies (95-2).
• Senate rejects amendment to release $10.2 billion in reconstruction funding only if the UN authorizes a multinational military force under US leadership in Iraq (42-57).
• Senate agrees to amendment to reimburse service members who paid for meals while hospitalized as a result of injuries or illness while in combat or training since 9/11 (99-0).
• Senate rejects amendment prohibiting use of defense funding for the involuntary deployment to Iraq of members of the National Guard and Reserves who have been involuntarily deployed for six months or more during the past six years (15-82).
October/November: Congress approves $87.5 billion in emergency war funding (House 298-121, Senate by voice vote).
May: House expresses deep appreciation to the members of military who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom (365-50).
June: Senate rejects amendment to suspend a portion of the reduction in the highest income-tax rate for individual taxpayers to pay for Iraq war (44-53).
• House expresses gratitude to US armed forces for valiant service and offers continued support (352-57).
• • •
109th Congress: Republicans control House (232-202*) and Senate (55-45*)
April: Senate adopts Robert Byrd amendment that war funding be part of the president's annual budget after fiscal year 2006 (61-31).
May: Congress passes $82 billion in emergency war funding (House 368-58, Senate 100-0).
• House rejects Woolsey amendment that the president should submit to Congress a plan for the withdrawal of US military forces from Iraq (128-300).
July: Senate adopts Warner amendment that calendar year 2006 should be a period of "significant transition" to full Iraqi sovereignty, thus creating conditions for phased redeployment of US forces from Iraq (79-19).
• House rejects resolution to terminate immediately deployment of US forces in Iraq (3-403).
December: House expresses commitment to achieving victory in Iraq (279-109).
June: Congress passes $94.5 billion in emergency war funding (House 351-67, Senate 98-1).
• House agrees to resolution declaring that it is not in US national security interests to set arbitrary date for withdrawal or redeployment of US troops in Iraq (256-153).
• Senate rejects Levin amendment to begin phased redeployment of US forces from Iraq in 2006 (39-60).
• Senate rejects amendment to require the redeployment of US armed forces from Iraq by July 1, 2007 (13-86).
• • •
110th Congress: Democrats control House (233-202) and Senate (51*-49)
January: House votes that it shall be US policy to "vigorously support the government of Afghanistan" and to deploy troops there "as long as the Afghan government supports such US involvement" (299-128).
*Democratic totals include independents who caucus with them.
Sources: Congressional Research Service, US House of Representatives, and US Senate