WASHINGTON -- The Republican-led House is billing today's debate on the Iraq war as the most in-depth in more than three years, but the deliberations are shaping up to be more of a partisan cage match than a serious discussion of policy.
The debate, say critics, is a barely disguised effort to give President Bush a partisan pat on the back and to put Democrats on the defensive heading into the midterm elections.
House Republican leader John A. Boehner of Ohio said he scheduled it so lawmakers could speak on what he called "the No. 1 concern in America." But it is also designed to reaffirm that the war is on the right course, he said, dismissing as "bellyaching" the complaints of some that the resolution is too pro-Bush.
"I'm sorry that people have to make an uncomfortable decision," Boehner said this week.
He said he wanted the debate to be "educational" but made it clear that he thinks the White House and the Pentagon should be making the policy choices.
"We're not running the war out of the House," he said.
Republicans are clearly hoping to pummel Democrats who have opposed the war from the beginning. But a small but growing number of Republicans who are also expressing reservations about the war could complicate that effort. They, and most Democrats, claim Boehner and other leaders are injecting partisan politics into what should be a debate over where the fight in Iraq should go from here.
The resolution is "a political trap designed to get everybody to vote for this," said Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican who has broken with his party in calling for Bush to put forward a strategy for ending the war.
"The reason there will not be a vote on our amendment is because we would win it," he said.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, who represents Southern Maryland and is the No. 2 Democrat in the House, said that without the opportunity to offer amendments or alternatives, "it's neither substantive nor serious - it's just politics."
Hoyer, one of 81 Democrats who voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, exemplifies the unease of some moderate lawmakers. When pressed about whether he would vote for the resolution, he said he hadn't decided but "it has some premises in it with which I don't agree."
Republicans know that plummeting public support for the war could be a factor in this November's elections, but they have been successful in putting Democrats on the spot over the issue. This week, they are riding a wave of good news from Iraq, including the recent killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Bush's surprise trip to Baghdad.
Democrats have been badly split over the war since it first became a possibility and fear that being painted as weak on security issues could hurt them in the midterm election. Hoyer, who as party whip is in charge of counting the votes of House Democrats on key issues, said party leaders would not pressure lawmakers on the issue, a gesture aimed at sparing those in tight re-election races.
Unlike a raucous argument over Iraq on the House floor in December - when lawmakers were asked to vote on a resolution demanding immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops - today's debate will center on a nonbinding expression of opinion from lawmakers, not a timetable. Republican leaders, in drawing up the resolution, are daring Democratic congressmen to vote in an election year against the proposition that "the United States will prevail in the Global War on Terror, the noble struggle to protect freedom from the terrorist adversary."
The language has prompted some lawmakers who pressed for a debate to say they won't participate today out of protest. But Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of Maryland said he would swallow his disappointment and take advantage of any opportunity to advocate for his ideas about how to bring the war to an end, including drawing in other Middle Eastern nations to help.
Gilchrest, a Vietnam-era Marine Corps sergeant whose Eastern Shore district has lost more than a dozen soldiers - almost all of them in Iraq - said lawmakers owe those fighting overseas a real debate.
"We've got to do more than pray for them," he said.
Rep. Walter B. Jones, a North Carolina Republican who, like Gilchrest, voted to go to war in late 2002 but has since become an advocate for changing U.S. policy there, recounted a recent conversation the pair had on a visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He said they spoke with a young soldier who had lost his legs on his third tour in Iraq, and he told them that the only difference between staying in Iraq for 10 more days or 10 more years would be the number of American deaths.
Jones, who was such an enthusiastic supporter of toppling Saddam Hussein that he helped lead the charge to stock the House cafeterias with "freedom fries" to protest French reluctance to support an invasion of Iraq, said it was disturbing to him that, as American troops are fighting and dying to promote democracy in Iraq, the House was sticking to a resolution that is essentially meaningless.
"When you send a kid to die for this country, you need to live up to your constitutional obligation," he said.
Democratic Rep. John Tanner of Tennessee said military victory cannot be won unless Iraqis put aside religious and cultural differences long enough to create a true democracy. It would help, he said, if American politicians could set an example.
"There doesn't seem to me to be any more appropriate time to question government policy than when young people are dying on the battlefield in some far-off place," he said. "If we can't do that, what kind of country do we have?"