As US lawmakers debate Iraq, lots of backstage help

House members who won't get their five minutes at the podium until Thursday – after 300 or so colleagues have already said their piece on President Bush's Iraq war strategy – need not wring their hands and wonder what's left to say. Help is at hand.

Briefing books are packed with key talking points. Members en route to the floor can snap up ready-made charts, graphs, and photos of the war zone or terrorist-hit sites. There are quotations set in giant type, ready for placement on easels and before cameras. And e-mail updates go out more often than spam, as party leaders send their members new talking points in response to the latest claim made by the other side.

The theatrics are part of a three-day debate on the Iraq war – the first since voters gave Democrats control of Congress. What follows is a House vote, set for Friday, on a nonbinding resolution that expresses disapproval of Mr. Bush's plan for a troop "surge" in Iraq.

Of course, these are politicians, a breed not known for speechmaking deficit. Forgoing the aids, many are drawing on personal experience, or on the lives of constituents, in preparing for their five minutes at the mike.

For Rep. Ron Kind (D) of Wisconsin, it's the faces on the two easels outside his Capitol Hill office, pictures of soldiers killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. One is of Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Todd Olsen, from Loyal, Wis., who died after his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb in Samarra, Iraq, a day after Christmas in 2004. Representative Kind says he recently attended a second military funeral in Loyal, which got its name during the US Civil War, after all the town's able-bodied men signed up for the Union Army.

"It hit people hard in a little town where everyone knows everyone," he says. Kind says he has spent the past three weekends at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., talking with wounded soldiers. "That's why it's so important to get the policy right," he says. He will vote for the resolution.

The Democratic leadership in the House is urging its members to pick one of five themes: 1) support the troops and veterans, 2) the surge won't work, 3) diplomatic solutions are needed, 4) a troop escalation in Iraq will impair US military readiness, and 5) where is accountability in contracting.

"We're encouraging members to speak to those themes, so people aren't repeating the same things over and over," says Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Republicans have narrowed their themes to four: 1) the dangers of the global reach of militant Islam, 2) the consequences of failure in Iraq, 3) the Democrats' nonbinding resolution is a political stunt, and 4) the resolution is a first step toward cutting off funding for troops in harm's way.

"This is the most important policy decision most members will have in their lifetimes, and it's being driven by politics," says Ed Patru, a spokesman for the House Republican Conference, commenting on Theme 3.

In preparing her speech, Rep. Kay Granger (R) of Texas says she recalled conversations with servicemen and servicewomen during her three trips to Iraq, as well as meetings in her district with families of those who died there. She says she asked herself: "What's the most important thing I can say to an 18-year-old about to put on a helmet and 80 pounds of equipment in Iraq, to show that we're supporting them" – and that their mission matters.

Here's what she said Wednesday morning: "Let me be clear: The consequences of failure in Iraq would be catastrophic.... With all my heart, I believe we stand at a crucial crossroads, where the decisions we make will affect not only us but our children and the generations to come."

Early on, House leaders on both sides of the aisle realized that a debate on the next moves in Iraq, to be credible, had to be tied to the needs and experiences of US forces in the field. Democrats led off with three freshmen lawmakers who have recent military experience: Reps. Patrick Murphy and Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania and Tim Walz of Minnesota.

Representative Sestak, a former Navy vice admiral who served during the Clinton administration, got word that he was to speak only a few hours before the debate began Tuesday. He jotted down a few ideas for reference, and rewrote parts of his speech on the floor. But no need for talking points or position papers; he'd lived them.

"We're doubling down on a bad military bet," he says. "A surge hasn't worked and it won't work again."

Sestak says he's especially attentive to charges that this House debate will demoralize troops in the field. "Every day that I was forward deployed I wanted to know if we were wisely deployed," he says. "It's a duty for members of Congress to make that choice," even and especially if it means reversing a bad policy, he adds.

For their part, Republicans are saving their members with strong military experience for the end of the debate.

Rep. Sam Johnson (R) of Texas, who will lead off the last round of Republican speeches, spent Monday evening making his case for a GOP amendment protecting funding for the troops before the House Rules Committee, instead of attending a dinner celebrating the anniversary of his release from captivity as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. His remarks the next day to the GOP caucus helped fire up colleagues facing what insiders expect to be a tough week for Republicans, who may see dozens of defections when the vote finally comes.

"It's a conscience vote, and they don't come any bigger than this one," said Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio, at a briefing with reporters after the debate began.

Though the resolution is nonbinding, many lawmakers say they expect this decision to be the most important they make in this Congress.

"You couldn't ask for a resolution that is more black and white," says freshman Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona. "I will write [the speech] myself," she says. "I have some terrific staff, but it's best for me to speak from my heart."

While no Arizonans are currently recovering from combat at Walter Reed hospital, she says, she has been visiting other returning soldiers. "I sense from our soldiers that the Iraqi people's heart is not in this," says Representative Giffords. "Their loyalty is to their sect or region. They're not coalescing around the nation of Iraq."

Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona says he's wary of "434 generals" in the House micromanaging the commander in chief. But he's also not taking dictation from GOP leaders on talking points. "Constituents deserve to know what you really feel," he says.

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