Rep. John Murtha's call for the withdrawal of US troops in Iraq is roiling both parties on the war - and intensifying a debate that is rapidly moving beyond the capacity of party leaders to control.
The fracture lines are most acute for the Democrats. Their two House leaders are divided by Mr. Murtha's proposal. And their party's chairman, Howard Dean, spurred controversy this week by suggesting that victory in Iraq is not possible. Some Democrats fear that stand may undermine their party's claim to be strong on national defense - and weaken their prospects to make gains in next year's midterm elections.
"Until Murtha's statement, Democrats could hide behind the 'we support the troops but deplore the war' rhetoric. By laying down this marker on the war, he's put Democrats in a very tough position," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
But most Republicans, meanwhile, weren't rushing to President Bush's defense, as he rolled out two big speeches in as many weeks defending the administration's record on a war that polls suggest has lost the support of most voters.
Underneath the public (and private) rifts in both parties, there's a growing consensus in Congress that the White House must be more concrete in defining what constitutes victory in Iraq - and more forthcoming in the metrics needed to measure progress.
After a two-hour caucus meeting on the war on Wednesday, Democrats emerged as divided as ever on the war. "We take great pride because we are not a rubberstamp caucus," said Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who is endorsing the Murtha proposal. The No. 2 Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland is opposing it.
But Democrats are in agreement on the milestones they want met in Iraq. In a caucus with Democrats on Wednesday, Murtha, a 17-term Democrat from Pennsylvania, laid out the paper trail of his efforts to get more information from the Pentagon and White House on concrete evidence of improving conditions in Iraq.
He especially took issue with the administration's estimates of progress toward growth in the number of Iraqi forces prepared to take over responsibilities from American forces. The "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," published last month by the National Security Council, reports "more than 212,000 trained and equipped Iraqi Security Forces, compared with 96,000 in September of last year."
That estimate is at odds with a Pentagon estimate in 2004 that more than 200,000 Iraqis were at that time trained and under arms, Murtha said. "I can only measure progress by what I see."
Top Republicans are making the same point, although less dramatically.
After reviewing the 35-page "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, welcomed the new precision in the plan "to indicate some of the parameters that have to be met and at least some strategy, as [Bush] was able to reveal it."
But he added that the White House must also be prepared to make "an abnormal shift ... in terms of consultation with members of Congress ... if in fact we are going to have sustained support to what could be a fairly long period of time."
In a letter to colleagues, Senator Lugar is calling on all members of Congress to get deeper into the details of the war. A new Foreign Relations Committee report, released this week, credits the new civic and religious freedoms in Iraq, but also notes that "some are finding it hard to give up the financial benefits of a state-controlled system."
The report notes another front: While Iraq has the world's second-largest oil reserve, steady attacks have meant that the "money originally allocated for this sector is now limited to repairing existing infrastructure."
Speaking for Senate Democrats, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island called for greater congressional scrutiny of reconstruction funds, half of which are unspent. After six personal trips to Iraq, he says, he still sees a highly subsidized Iraqi economy, with electricity delivery below postwar levels. "We need to get much more into the details," he says. The key question is not if you pull out or when, but "the metrics of success."
Such concerns will take center stage early next year, when Congress takes up the next defense supplemental bill, which Murtha says he expects to cost about $100 billion. Over the holidays and January break, many members of Congress will also make return trips to Iraq and reconnect with their constituents on the war.
"We're putting together a set of principles that people can begin to embrace," says Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D) of California, a member of the Senate Armed Services who just returned from a visit to Iraq last weekend, who is urging Democrats to adopt a set of principles, rather than a strict timetable, for withdrawal.
"The fight needs to be turned over to the Iraqis, and we need to get back to our fight: against worldwide terrorism," she says.