Saturday, February 17, 2007

A tale of two houses: Congress does, and does not, rebuke Bush on Iraq

By Michael J.W. Stickings

As you may have heard, the House yesterday passed a resolution criticizing Bush's handling of the Iraq War, specifically the surge that is already underway:

Capping four days of passionate, often angry debate, the House yesterday delivered President Bush its first rebuke since the Iraq war was launched nearly four years ago, voting 246 to 182 to oppose the administration's planned deployment of 21,500 additional combat troops to Iraq.

Seventeen Republicans voted with all but two Democrats to approve a resolution that expresses support for U.S. combat forces but opposes the additional deployments. Democrats portrayed the vote as a bipartisan slap at the White House, but Republican leaders kept GOP defections below even their most optimistic estimates, as the debate crescendoed to a dramatic close yesterday.

Although the measure is nonbinding, proponents and opponents delivered outsized predictions of the vote's consequences. Democrats asserted that it will begin to turn the political tide so decisively that the president will have no choice but to begin bringing U.S. forces home, while Republicans warned darkly that the House has emboldened murderous Islamic terrorists at the expense not only of American lives but also of America's way of life.

Neither side, I suspect, is right -- and I say this as someone who supports the Democrats in this matter and opposes Bush, the Iraq War generally, and its Republican advocates.

Although seven Republicans voted with the Democrats, the resolution looks more like a partisan slap than a statement of congressional opposition to Bush's policy. Plus, it's toothless. Bush can, and will, ignore it, just as has ignored pretty much everything else his critics have said and done throughout his presidency. Congress may to some degree reflect the popular will, and the popular will may have serious reservations about Bush's handling of the war in general and of the surge in particular, but Bush, as we know all too well, is stubborn and self-righteous. He will continue to do as he pleases. It will take more than a non-binding resolution to stop him. Unless many more Republicans turn against him, in public and not just in private, that is, unless many more of them vote according to what they really think about the Iraq War and not with the party line, nothing will happen.

But at least the Democrats have the popular will behind them. At least they are looking for a way out of this disastrous war. The Republican argument that this non-binding resolution only serves to embolden terrorists is just the latest iteration of the divisive "you're either with us or you're against us" argument that Bush and his allies have been pushing since the very early days of the so-called war on terror. Now it's "you're either with the president on the surge or you're with the terrorists". Or, to put it another way, "you're either with the president or you're against America and the American way of life, a traitor and an enabler of terrorism that kills Americans".

Democrats, to their credit, haven't given in. More than ever, the Republican threat rings hollow. Americans know that being against Bush on Iraq isn't being with the terrorists, whether in Iraq or elsewhere. Democrats must continue to stand firm.

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The story was vastly different at the other end of the Capitol. Whereas the House passed its resolution, albeit a non-binding one, the Senate didn't manage to pass anything. Not for lack of trying, mind you. The Democrats tried to pass a resolution akin to the one the House passed, but the Republicans blocked them. In a Senate divided 51-49 and with filibuster rules firmly in place, the minority can do that:

Senate Republicans today blocked a floor vote on a House-passed resolution that expresses disapproval of President Bush's plan to send thousands of additional U.S. troops to Iraq, as a procedural motion to cut off debate on the measure fell short of the 60 votes needed.

It was the second time this month that minority Republicans successfully filibustered a nonbinding resolution opposing the troop buildup.

Senators voted 56-34 to invoke cloture and proceed to a floor vote on the resolution, with seven Republicans joining all the chamber's Democrats in calling for an end to the debate. But the motion fell four votes short of the threshold needed under Senate rules.

Still, the message was clear, if as toothless as the one coming out of the House: Congress opposes Bush's surge in Iraq. Which is to say, applying the two votes more broadly to the war as a whole, Congress has essentially expressed its lack of confidence in Bush's handling of the Iraq War. In a parliamentary system like the one in Britain and Canada, this would have been a no-confidence vote so significant as to bring down the government. In the U.S., all it means is that the president can carry on as if nothing happened.

Which is, to repeat, what will happen.


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The seven Republican senators who voted with the Democrats were John Warner of Virginia, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Gordon Smith of Oregon, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and Susan Collins of Maine. Give it up for them.

The one non-Republican senator who voted with the Republicans was "Democrat" Joe Lieberman. As usual, he deserves nothing but our contempt.

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