WASHINGTON -- Democrats and Republicans in the Senate dueled over the Iraq war yesterday, exchanging rhetorical jabs as both parties sought political advantage from a debate that many strategists think could be a decisive factor in determining which party controls Congress after the November elections.
The debate - prompted by two Democratic measures calling for a reduction in the number of U.S. troops, including one proposing a full withdrawal by next summer - is unlikely to have a direct impact on the conduct of the war.
But as the election season approaches, and with polls showing rising public unease over the war, Democrats are eager to cast blame on the Republicans' war policies, and Republicans are eager to cast doubt on the Democrats' resolve.
"Too often, the Bush administration deals simply in slogans, and we have heard them so often, so many times: 'Mission Accomplished,' 'Stay the Course,' 'Don't Cut and Run,'" said Sen. Jack Reed a Rhode Island Democrat who co-wrote one of the proposals. "But a military operation like this requires much more than slogans."
Reed's proposal, co-sponsored by Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan and supported by many other Democrats, urges President Bush to begin a "phased redeployment" of troops from Iraq by the end of this year but does not set a deadline for total withdrawal.
A more sweeping measure offered by Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, both Democrats, would order Bush to remove all troops from Iraq by July 31, 2007.
Republicans attacked both proposals.
"I would ask our colleagues who counsel retreat, who counsel self-defeatism: What do they think is going to happen if we leave Iraq prematurely before the Iraqi security forces can defend themselves and that new democracy?" said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican. "That power void would be filled by those who are currently fighting and killing innocent people in Iraq."
Votes on the two measures, amendments to a defense policy bill, are expected today.
Democrats hold 44 of the Senate's 100 seats, and neither amendment is expected to pass. But the vote count - especially on the Levin-Reed amendment, which the Democratic leadership backs - is considered an important gauge of Democratic unity.
Republicans derided the Democrats as indecisive, pointing to the two amendments as evidence.
"It's been interesting to watch the Democrats debate among themselves exactly what position they might have," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.
Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.