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Lots of talk about Iraq war, but don't call it debate
San Francisco Chronicle


February 15, 2007
Thursday PM

WASHINGTON -- Only by the loosest of definitions could the speech-giving marathon taking place on the House floor be described as a debate.

As Democrats and Republicans take turns at the microphone to talk about the war in Iraq, it is at times unclear that they are discussing the same proposition, let alone interested in hearing what the other side has to say.




What the public learns from the weeklong talkathon, and whether the White House will adjust its course after its likely rebuke from the House, is unclear.

The opportunity for persuasion seemed remote Tuesday as the House opened its debate over President Bush's decision to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq, with each side talking past the other.

Democrats said they owe it to the American people to stand in the way of an escalation. Republicans said they owe it to the troops to settle for nothing less than victory.

Back and forth it went from noon until midnight. Lawmaker after lawmaker rose, nearly 100 in all, to repeat by-now-familiar arguments about a war that will enter its fifth year next month.

"President Bush's escalation proposal will not make America safer, will not make our military stronger and will not make the region more stable," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said as the debate began.

"It's hard to imagine a group less capable of making tactical decisions about specific troop deployments than 535 members of Congress," rebutted Republican Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri.

The speeches went on, and on, even as a menacing ice storm shuttered federal offices and closed local schools. Democrats, able to set the agenda for the first time since the war began, scheduled 12 more hours of debate for Wednesday and another 12 hours for Thursday, culminating in a vote on Friday.

Whether the tens of thousands of words broadcast on C-SPAN, reprinted in the Congressional Record and distributed by congressional aides will change a single lawmaker's mind, Friday's vote will put each House member on record regarding Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq.

The measured, somber tone inside the House chamber on Tuesday reflected the seriousness of the topic, not the gravity of the nonbinding resolution that is limited to Bush's plan and has no legal authority.

"The world is watching. The world is watching every word that is being said on this floor," said Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., as the debate entered its sixth hour.

The world may have been watching, but Bush said he wouldn't be.

"In terms of watching the debate, I've got a lot to do," he said in an interview Monday with C-SPAN. "It's not as if the world stops when the Congress does."

And even under the Capitol dome, the most substantial debate in four years on the most substantial foreign-policy matter facing the nation began with the House chamber more than 80 percent empty.

There is little suspense about Friday's vote. Democratic leaders said all but one or two of their 233 members will vote in favor of the resolution. The overwhelming majority of Republicans are expected to vote against it, though Democrats circulated quotes from about 20 Republicans opposing Bush's plan, and suggested that as many as several dozen could ultimately support the resolution, which already has a Republican co-sponsor.

As a matter of policy, war critics hope a strong bipartisan vote will pressure Bush to reconsider his strategy, while their opponents voiced concern that such a vote would embolden the enemy.

As a matter of politics, both sides agree that votes cast on a topic of such importance to many Americans will have serious consequences for dozens of candidates in the 2008 election.

Democrats, seeking the broadest possible support, put forward a simple 97-word resolution that declares Congress' support for the troops and its opposition to the president's plan "to deploy more than 20,000 additional United States combat troops to Iraq."

"We made a decision that we wanted a very clear, uncluttered, not-confused statement," House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland explained.

But clear, uncluttered and not-confused is rarely the norm in a body of 435 members.

Republicans, sensing they may pay a political price for supporting a war plan opposed by most Americans, sought to reframe the debate from a simple up-or-down vote on the president's policy to a politically riskier discussion over whether to cut funds for the troops and force a quick withdrawal from Iraq.


E-mail Marc Sandalow at msandalow(at)
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