Senators Face Off Over 2 Iraq Pullout Plans
Democrats and Republicans dueled over the Iraq war in the Senate on Wednesday, exchanging rhetorical jabs as each side sought political advantage on a debate many strategists believed could be a decisive factor in determining which party would control Congress after the November elections.
The debate -- prompted by two Democratic measures calling for the drawdown of U.S. troops, one that proposes a full withdrawal by next summer -- is unlikely to have a direct impact on the conduct of the war.
But as election season approaches and polls show rising public unease over the war, Democrats are eager to cast blame on the GOP’s war policies, and Republicans are eager to cast doubt on the Democrats’ resolve.
“Too often, the Bush administration deals simply in slogans, and we have heard them so often, so many times: ‘Mission accomplished,’ ‘Stay the course,’ ‘Don’t cut and run,’ ” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), coauthor of one of the proposals. “But a military operation like this requires much more than slogans.”
Reed’s proposal, cosponsored by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and believed to have the support of a strong majority of Democratic senators, urges President Bush to begin a “phased redeployment” of troops from Iraq by the end of this year but does not set a deadline for complete withdrawal.
A more sweeping measure offered by Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) called for Bush to remove all troops from Iraq by July 1, 2007.
Republicans attacked both proposals as wrongheaded.
“I would ask our colleagues who counsel retreat, who counsel self-defeatism: What do they think is going to happen if we leave Iraq prematurely, before the Iraqi security forces can defend themselves and that new democracy?” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said. “That power void would be filled by those who are currently fighting and killing innocent people in Iraq.”
Votes on the two measures, amendments to a defense policy bill, are expected today.
With Democrats holding only 44 of the Senate’s 100 seats, neither amendment is expected to pass. But the vote count -- especially on the Levin-Reed amendment, supported by the Democratic leadership -- is considered an important barometer of party unity.
Republicans derided the Democrats as indecisive, citing the two amendments as evidence.
“It’s been interesting to watch the Democrats debate among themselves exactly what position they might have,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who mocked one as “cut and run” and the other as “cut and jog.”
Democrats contended that the measures were not contradictory.
“Both amendments are a step in the right direction as they begin the process of winding down what has been the most tragic exercise of U.S. military power since Vietnam,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who said he planned to vote for both.
California’s Democratic senators are divided on the approaches to withdrawal: Sen. Dianne Feinstein is a cosponsor of the Levin-Reed amendment; Sen. Barbara Boxer is a cosponsor of the Kerry-Feingold amendment.
Democratic leaders had pressured Kerry and his allies not to offer a separate amendment. But polls released in recent days suggested that Democratic voters strongly backed a deadline for withdrawal, and Kerry’s proposal gained additional support.
It was a Democrat, though, who was the first speaker Wednesday to oppose that amendment: Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who is facing a stiff primary challenge because of his strong support for the administration’s Iraq policies.
The debate in the Senate echoed similar action last week in the House, where Republicans adopted a resolution supporting the operation in Iraq as an integral part of a global campaign against terrorism and rejecting an “arbitrary” timeline for withdrawal.
On Wednesday, Republicans in the Senate also asserted that the operation in Iraq was essential to fighting terrorism.
“There is no exit from Iraq or the global war on terror except success,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Democrats repeatedly complained that Republicans had no strategy in Iraq except to use clever phrases to cut off debate in Congress and across the United States.
One Republican, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, said that even though he would vote against both amendments, he believed that GOP slogan-slinging had degraded the debate.
“This debate should transcend cynical attempts to turn public frustration with the war in Iraq into an electoral advantage, and it should be taken more seriously than to simply retreat to focus-group-tested buzzwords and phrases like ‘cut and run,’ ” he said. “Catchy political slogans debase the seriousness of war.”
The Senate debate was passionate but less strident than the fierce emotion that marked last week’s action in the House -- the first time that chamber had formally debated the issue since the war began more than three years ago.
The Senate’s more lenient rules have permitted the minority party to debate the war in various formats. In particular, last year the Senate adopted by a 79-19 vote a Democrat-drafted resolution calling on the administration to make 2006 a year of “significant transition” in Iraq, with the aim of withdrawing U.S. troops.
Presidential politics infused Wednesday’s debate as well, with several of the speakers -- including Hagel, Kerry, Feingold and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) -- considered likely presidential contenders for 2008.
Clinton said she would support the Levin-Reed proposal, which sets only a start time to redeploy troops, but would oppose the Kerry-Feingold proposal, which sets an end date as well.
“I may disagree with those who call for a date certain for a withdrawal, but I do not doubt their patriotism,” she said on the Senate floor. “Sadly, however, there are those who do.... They choose to tar all who disagree with an open-ended, unconditional commitment as unpatriotic, as waving the white flag of surrender. They may not have a war strategy, but they do have an election strategy.”
Tom Matzzie, Washington director for the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org, said the debate might help narrow differences between antiwar activists and the Democratic Party’s Washington leadership.
He said Clinton’s support of the Levin-Reed amendment, in particular, moved her closer to critics of the war -- some of whom booed her when she appeared this month at a liberal conference in Washington.
“It is most definitely a step beyond where she has been because she acknowledged the importance of troop redeployment in terms of stabilizing Iraq,” he said.
Times staff writer Ronald Brownstein contributed to this report.