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Congress' Strange Death Dance on Iraq

Senate Foreign Relations Committee members (from left) John Kerry (D-MA), Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE) hold a hearing on a Government Accountability Office report assessing the political and military progress in Iraq, Sept. 4, 2007. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Senate Foreign Relations Committee members (from left) John Kerry (D-MA), Richard Lugar (R-IN), Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and Norm Coleman (R-MN) hold a hearing on a Government Accountability Office report assessing the political and military progress in Iraq, Sept. 4, 2007.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Members of Congress return this week to Washington and to work, looking uncommonly grim. Ahead they see an autumn of heavy lifting, with precious little leverage and few prospects to improve their abysmal public standing.

The agenda includes war, of course, as well as shaky financial markets, spending bills (and vetoes) and multiple investigations of the executive branch's failings. Daunting as all of these issues are, a functioning Congress would find ways to go forward.

But this Congress is not really functioning, at least not in the sense of finding common ground and striking compromises, which is what the awkward institution was intended and designed to do.

Perhaps this Congress is simply overmatched by its historical moment. The Democratic majorities are narrow (almost nonexistent in the Senate), and not even close to the two-thirds needed to override vetoes. A determined President Bush presses ahead. His party, with some misgivings, marches behind him. Republicans trying to run Congress had similar problems at times under President Clinton, as Democrats did under Presidents George H.W. Bush, Reagan, Ford and Nixon.

But there is another reason this Congress seems at odds with itself. The politics of the war in Iraq bedevil the leaders of both parties in both chambers, because there is a wicked disconnect between each party's immediate aims and its own best interests in 2008 and beyond.

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Republicans know what they want to see happen next. They want the president's surge to succeed at pacifying at least some areas for at least another six to 12 months so that U.S. troops can come home in an attitude of victory. That would be a far better banner for the GOP to carry in November 2008 than any it has today.

Of course, pursuing that vision carries substantial risk. If the surge does not produce political results, or if the alliance with Sunni militias breaks down, or if the current muddle merely continues, Americans will be even less happy about the war a year from now than they are today. That's how you get a Democratic president with substantial majorities in the House and Senate, and plenty of Republicans know and fear this.

From a purely electoral standpoint, Republicans would be much better off if Democrats prevailed this fall on the issue of Iraq. If the Democrats had their way, they would force a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq and cut back on the funding as well. This would stand in high relief because the White House is about to ask for yet another big increase in the funding, as the war is costing more than ever.

This course of action would not get all of the troops home overnight, or even soon. Neither would it solve the political stalemate in Baghdad nor conditions in Iraq in general. It would not even placate the most fervent anti-war activists in the U.S., who would regard it as too little and too late.

The Democrats could say they had at least reversed the trend toward escalation. But in so doing, they would have shouldered the responsibility for the situation in Iraq. This transfer of responsibility would take place just as voters were tuning in for the general election. And in a strictly political sense, that is the last thing Democrats would want.

So as the confrontation over Iraq unfolds this month, overshadowing everything else, both parties will be battling for control of the policy. And whichever party prevails will likely pay a heavy price for it next year. Cooler heads on both sides of the aisle fully realize this, which is why they worry.

Is there another way out? Yes, there is the ideal of two parties rising above their profound differences and distrust and seeking a deal that both could own. This would require the president negotiating with the Congress as equals and the Congress saluting the unique power of the presidency. It would require Republicans and Democrats to abandon the vision of total victory that some strategists on both sides always want to pursue.

Such a deal would have a chance of finding national consensus on the matter now most dividing the nation. It might produce a centrist approach to extricating the U.S. from a commitment that no one wants to be open-ended.

And it would surely be better than the current conundrum, in which both parties seem to be fighting to the death for the privilege of committing political suicide.