First it was the Senate, tying itself in knots over the past week in its effort to tackle a resolution opposing President Bush's troop build-up in Iraq. Now the issue moves to the House of Representatives, which has scheduled three full days of floor debate on the matter, beginning Feb. 13. A vote on a resolution — as yet not fully written — is expected on the night of the 15th.
And in an unusual departure from House practice, all 435 members will be allowed up to five minutes to speak on the resolution.
The original idea had been for the House to wait for the Senate to adopt some kind of resolution — or resolutions — and bring them to the House for consideration. The Senate looked to be on track with a bipartisan resolution jointly offered by Senators John Warner of Virginia and Carl Levin of Michigan, the former and current chairmen of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
But on the first day the Senate turned to the Warner-Levin resolution, a procedural disagreement arose. The Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, said his entire caucus would vote against considering the Warner-Levin language unless the Democrats agreed to also consider other Republican alternatives — and to require 60 votes to approve any of them.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused both these conditions, so all but two Republicans voted against bringing Warner-Levin formally to the floor for debate (it takes 60 votes to ensure against a filibuster, and Reid could only muster 49). Through the rest of the week, negotiations between the two leaders continued, while individual senators took to the floor to present their individual views of the war and buildup. The week ended with Reid promising that his chamber would return to the resolution "before you know it" — but with the official agenda stuck on consideration of a budget measure for the rest of fiscal 2007.
So with the Senate in stasis, House Democratic leaders picked up the ball and ran. It is patterned after the House debate on the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. At that time, the body debated a measure approving the use of force by President George H.W. Bush against the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein.
This time, as then, each member of the House will get five minutes of floor time to state their opinions on the Iraq war and the president's strategies. Five minutes may not sound like much, especially if you're used to watching the Senate's seemingly limitless timelines, but in the House, rank-and-file lawmakers are lucky to get 30 seconds of floor time on any given issue.
Democratic leaders haven't released the final language of their Iraq resolution yet. The chairmen of the Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees — Tom Lantos (D-CA) and Ike Skelton (D-MO) respectively — have been drafting the language and are expected to work on it through the weekend.
The Democratic leaders have said it will be non-binding, but will send a message to President Bush that Congress disapproves of his "escalation" of the war in Iraq, referring to the increase of combat troop levels by 21,500 (plus an undetermined number of support troops). The resolution will also include language stating full support for the troops. The House Democrats' resolution will be released on Monday.
Some Republicans, including Vice President Dick Cheney, have said that it is impossible for Congress to both support the troops and "undermine their mission" in the same debate. Several House Republicans have said terrorists will take comfort in seeing the division in Congress and in America over the war. But this week two top military officials, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter Pace, told a House panel they don't agree with that assessment. They said debate in Congress serves to strengthen democracy.
The floor debate will take up three extended sessions of the House on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of next week. One top Democrat, Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania, the chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, told NPR he expects the resolution will pass with bipartisan support: some 35 to 40 Republican votes, as well as those of all the Democrats.
And, Murtha says, Democrats won't stop there. If President Bush doesn't listen, Murtha says he intends to find ways through his subcommittee to redirect funds for the troop surge to other areas, including pre-deployment troop training.