The No. 1 issue for American voters – the future of the Iraq war – moves to the fore this week, both among President Bush's wartime advisers and on the floor of Congress.
For supporters of the war, long thirsting for signs of progress, the timing seems fortuitous. Last week, US forces killed Iraq's most wanted terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the Iraqi prime minister finally completed his national-unity government. Monday, at Camp David, the president gathered his war cabinet and outside experts for a two-day strategy session, and Wednesday he meets at the White House with the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. In Congress, both houses are set to vote for supplemental war funding.
But it is the full-day debate on Iraq on the floor of the House of Representatives, scheduled for Thursday, that is the least predictable of the forums. The last time the House took to debating Iraq, last November, the scene deteriorated into recriminations over a resolution calling for immediate withdrawal that Democrats called a political stunt. House majority leader John Boehner (R) of Ohio, who has long planned for this week's debate, hopes to match the serious, dignified tone of deliberation that preceded the Gulf war, in 1991. Most of his GOP colleagues support the idea.
"The House is a debating society in the best sense of the word," says Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, chairman of the International Relations Committee. "Everyone that listens with an open mind will find an aspect to this that they hadn't thought of."
Other members, including antiwar Republicans and Democrats, also welcome a debate, as long as the terms are fair, they say. At time of writing, the text of the resolution to be debated had not been released, but congressional sources indicated that it would frame the Iraq war as part of the broader war on terror, a point of controversy. Many war critics argue that the US role in Iraq has deflected attention from the larger war on terror, and thus antiwar members may feel compelled to vote against the resolution. But that may prove politically risky, as the resolution will also express support for American troops, and no member wants to be seen opposing the men and women in harm's way.
At a highly politicized time, with the fall midterm elections approaching and future control of Congress in question, some political analysts see risks for both parties in an Iraq debate. Public support for the war has been on a long, downward slide, and Bush's own job approval rating and policy agenda have been damaged by Iraq more than anything else.
"I don't think the floor is the place to have a debate on Iraq – ours is not a parliamentary system," says GOP strategist Ed Rollins, who argues that such discussion is better handled by members in their districts. "If you get into a big all-out debate, it becomes a referendum on whether the president is right or whether those who voted for it are right. It's not a pretty thing for the public to watch, especially for our troops in the field."
Other Republicans say that with public opinion on the war so low, Bush and his supporters have nowhere to go but up.
The debate could also serve to highlight divisions among Democrats over the war. Until now, Republicans have suffered most of the political pain over Iraq, and Democrats have managed to keep their differences away from broad public scrutiny.
For some Republicans who strongly support the US role in Iraq, political expediency or risk are beside the point: A sober, public debate on how to proceed in Iraq, at a critical turning point in that country's development, is an important way for elected representatives to help shape the future.
"It's the right thing to do," says Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, who has been to Iraq 12 times, more than any other member. "There's a logic in debating an issue that has not turned out like any of us hoped, and then determine why that's the case."
Still, he remains hopeful about what the US can accomplish in Iraq, and sees congressional debate as useful to advancing the public dialogue. "My big fear about Iraq is not that we're going to lose the Iraqi war in Iraq, but that we would lose the Iraqi war here at home," says Mr. Shays, who is locked in a tough reelection battle. "I think members should have an opportunity to say what they want to say – to ... have everybody on the record."
Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, a conservative Republican known for his highly publicized turn against the war, also views the coming debate hopefully, as long as it is "fair and open" and the rule allows for "adequate division of time" among opponents and proponents of the war.
Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio also welcomes the debate: "The American people are wondering what course will lead us to redeploying our forces out of Iraq. This debate allows us to focus on a strategic discussion of what's ahead, rather than just a few people briefed at the highest levels. The American people expect Congress to assume its rightful authority in warmaking...."
• Staff writer Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report from Washington.