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Congress Erupts in Partisan Debate Over the War in Iraq

By Robin Toner
and Kate Zernike
THE NEW YORK TIMES


WASHINGTON

The House and the Senate engaged in angry, intensely partisan debate on Thursday over the war in Iraq as Republicans sought to rally support for the Bush administration’s policies and exploit Democratic divisions in an election year shadowed by unease over the war.

It was one of the sharpest legislative clashes yet over the three-year-old conflict, and it came after three days in which President Bush and his aides sought to portray Iraq as moving gradually toward a stable, functioning democracy, and to paint Democrats as lacking the will to see the conflict through to victory.

In the House, lawmakers stepped toward a vote on a Republican resolution promising to “complete the mission” in Iraq, prevail in the global fight against terrorism and oppose any “arbitrary date for withdrawal” of U.S. combat troops from Iraq.

In the Senate, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to shelve an amendment calling on the United States to withdraw most troops by the end of this year, although Democrats vowed to revisit the debate next week.

Both actions were carefully engineered by the Republicans in charge, and for the moment, at least, put both chambers on a path to rejecting congressional timetables for withdrawal.

House Republicans asserted that their resolution was essential to assure U.S. troops and the world at large that the United States was behind the war in Iraq and the broader struggle against terrorism, conflicts they said were inextricably intertwined. Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, who rarely speaks from the floor of the House, opened the formal 10-hour debate.

“It is a battle we must endure and one in which we can and will be victorious,” he said of the fight against terrorists, in Iraq and beyond. “The alternative would be to cut and run and wait for them to regroup and bring the terror back to our shores.”

He added that the U.S. troops in Iraq knew that their cause was noble, that they were liberators and not occupiers. “It is time for this House of Representatives to tell the world that we know it, too, that we know our cause is right and that we are proud of it.”

Democrats, divided over the wisdom of the war but more or less united in condemning Bush’s management of it, countered that the Republican resolution was a mere political ploy. They said it was an attempt to avoid a true debate on administration policies, “a press release for staying the course in Iraq,” as Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., put it. “It does not signal a change in policy, and thus I cannot support it.”

For all the anger, there was sadness, too. At the start of the debate, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., asked for a moment of silence to mark the Pentagon’s announcement on Thursday that the number of U.S. military deaths in Iraq had hit 2,500. Many lawmakers talked about visiting the troops, in Iraq and in hospitals, and about the toll in death and suffering.

Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., the Vietnam War veteran whose call for a speedy withdrawal of troops transformed the debate last year, rose again and again to tell Republicans, “Rhetoric does not solve the problem.”