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In shift, G.O.P. welcomes Iraq debate

Republican senators see the issue as a plus for the presidential campaign.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 28, 2008


For nearly five years, Senate Republicans had blocked any bid to force a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. That changed this week.

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In a surprise move, Republicans stunned the Democratic leadership by voting to debate a bill that requires the Pentagon to begin the "safe redeployment of US troops" within 120 days.

The measure, cosponsored by Senate majority leader Harry Reid and Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, proposes cutting off funds for combat deployments in Iraq 120 days after its passage.

Prospects for approving the bill have not changed: Similar measures failed by big margins in four separate votes last year, and President Bush has pledged to veto it.

But the sudden GOP willingness to have a public debate on the war points to a new confidence in Republican ranks that the war could yet be a plus for the party in November elections, especially in the presidential race.

"The highest number of votes the Feingold withdrawal proposal has received at any point in these four [previous] votes is 29 votes. It should be voted on, defeated once again, and it certainly will be," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday. "Now we've had six months or so of undeniable progress on all fronts."

Democratic leaders had planned to use this week's floor time to debate high-profile legislation on relief for Americans facing home foreclosures. "It is obvious to me what the game plan is: They want us to slow the Senate down from getting things done," Senator Reid said, after the 70-to-24 vote to take up the Iraq bill. "It is very clear that they are going to do everything they can to stop us from getting to the housing legislation, which the American people badly need."

Reid proposed limiting the war debate to two hours; Republicans held out for the full 30 hours provided in Senate rules.

"All the incentives have changed in a year. For Republicans, it's much better to debate Iraq than to debate the home mortgage crisis," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. "There's a perception that the surge [of additional US troops last spring] worked, and it plays into the campaign theme that is certain to be central" in any presidential race.