Furor Over Iraq Ties Congress in Knots

These have been troubled times for the House and Senate. Yes, these bodies are built for conflict, and the people in them thrive on it. But this fall the annual wrangle over money has been derailed and replaced by a more general sense of disorder that stems from unease about Iraq.

In one sense, the breakdown began with Hurricane Katrina. Congress' carefully wrapped package of fiscal decisions for 2006 flew apart like a tarpaper shack in a gale. The annual budget deficit trend line, which had been heading down, suddenly shot back up, causing fiscal hardliners in the House to dig in their heels.

That, of course, spurred a counter-reaction from Republican moderates and even produced a rare degree of unity among Democrats. The end result has been paralysis in both the budget process and the routine approval of appropriations (spending) bills, as the largest of these actually failed in the House last week and remains in limbo.

Yet a greater rebellion was brewing all fall in the Senate, where different factions have been spoiling for a confrontation with the Bush administration over the conduct of the war in Iraq. And this past week, the lid came off in the House as well.

The Senate rebellion began in October, when a bipartisan majority of 90 senators added an amendment to the annual military appropriation that would ban the abuse of detainees (including terror suspects). This attempt to impose conventional military standards of treatment was led by Sen. John McCain, whose own seven years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi lent him unassailable credibility. The administration immediately promised to veto any bill with McCain's language in it.

But the Senate's insurgency really picked up steam in November, when the McCain amendment was also added to the annual military authorization bill — the policymaking legislation where it really belonged (and from which it may be harder to remove).

This was when the administration sent Vice President Richard Cheney to a closed-door meeting with Senate Republicans. Cheney insisted on an exemption for CIA interrogation centers. News of these secret facilities soon leaked to The Washington Post, and the subsequent story has been roiling the GOP ranks ever since.

But a remarkable byproduct of the debate on detainee abuse was its psychological effect. Senators were out on the floor debating not only the narrow issue but the wider war.

Since the vote was taken three years ago to authorize the use of military force against Saddam Hussein, most in Congress have observed wartime customs. Republicans in particular, have tried to present a united front and to avoid divisive criticism.

But in recent weeks, public opinion has been shifting against the war. The polls say more than 60 percent of Americans disapprove of the president's handling of the war and smaller majorities think the war was a mistake made on the basis of misinformation. But members may be equally moved by private encounters with old friends who say much the same.

This shift in attitude became increasingly audible as the Senate debated its military policymaking bill this month. Democrats failed when they sought to impose target dates for a phased withdrawal, but a strikingly wide majority from both parties voted for an alternative offered by John Warner of Virginia.

Warner is the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. His alternative sets 2006 as a year of "transition" in Iraq and requires regular reports on progress toward that goal. It may not be a timetable for withdrawal, but it's all about getting out as fast as possible.

That's when the next shoe dropped on the House side. It was dropped by Rep. John Murtha, the emblematic, old-school, pro-defense Democrat of Pennsylvania. Murtha, who had been calling for a greater commitment of troops and money to make the war winnable, said at a news conference he now thought U.S. troops should just come home — and as soon as practicable — basically over the next six months.

Such a withdrawal is not the Democrats' official position. Indeed, when a shorthand version of it was put to a vote by Republicans, even Murtha voted against it. But again, as in the Senate, the psychological impact was critical. Without little warning, here was the people's House on TV, letting what has long been a hidden obsession with Iraq burst forth.

No one knows where all this goes when the two chambers return in December. The fiscal matters must be resolved so the government can function, and some manner of compromise will be struck in closed meetings to do so. Then that deal will be freighted onto whatever bill is most certain to pass both chambers, and Congress will go home for the year.

But it will be much more difficult to damp down the fires of rancor and resentment over the nation's policy in Iraq, now that these have broken out in full view.

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