War debate shifts into political battle

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- With the Senate sinking into a legislative quagmire over Iraq, lawmakers and their allies are shifting to what has proved to be more solid ground when it comes to the war: political recriminations.

Every twist and turn of this week's grinding Senate stalemate was accompanied by a new round of political ads and accusations. Republicans were portrayed as putting loyalty to President Bush before support for strained troops, while Democrats were characterized as being beholden to the ultra-left, as embodied by MoveOn.org. The partisan clamor will likely grow louder as the policy fight recedes.

"This is a political consultant's dream, this war," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, referring to the many possibilities for 30-second spots to be found in the multiple votes on the war.

In many respects, the Senate showdown was always more about political positioning than troop positioning, as virtually no one expected any of the central Democratic efforts to become law and force a change in war strategy. Even if a deployment plan or withdrawal timetable were to reach a 60-vote threshold to pass it, Bush would veto the bill, and the search would be on for 67 votes to override -- a currently unattainable number.

But none of the proposals came close to passing. The latest Democratic effort to require a withdrawal within nine months died yesterday by an anticlimactic margin of 47-47, a slip in its support since it was last considered in July.

Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island pledged to try again next week with a watered-down version that could be more acceptable to swing Republicans. "The stakes are simply too high to stop what we're doing," Levin said.

But, for most in Congress, the current war debate effectively ended Wednesday, when a limit on troop rotations put forward by Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia was torpedoed by Republican Sen. John W. Warner, also of Virginia and a former backer.

The impasse leaves both parties in an uncomfortable political posture. Democrats have not fulfilled the promise of their 2006 election sweep by forcing a reduction of troops in Iraq, fraying the patience of their anti-war supporters. Republicans have held off Democrats only to confront the possibility of going before the voters next year to answer for tens of thousands of troops remaining on the ground fighting an unpopular and expensive war.

"I am really not happy with it, not because of the politics, but because it tells the American public this Congress is so divided," Sen. Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, said of the standoff. He is one of those Republicans who will be on the ballot next year.

For the moment, Republicans say they have won by not splintering in September, as had long been predicted. They have been heartened by military gains that they say offer at least the chance of political improvement in Iraq, though they are realistic that national reconciliation might not occur.

Also, they say that Democrats were badly undermined by the now famous "Petraeus or Betray Us" ad by MoveOn.org, which rattled Republicans who were considering joining Democrats and made some Democrats tentative in their questioning of Gen. David H. Petraeus during his testimony last week. "The Petraeus ad outed MoveOn as being too extreme for the American people," said Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican and co-chairman of the National Republican Committee.

Democrats acknowledge that the MoveOn ad was a distraction and illustrated the difficulties of working with liberal advocacy groups, which can be invaluable in rallying supporters and spreading the party message but have their own agenda outside the party.

But Democratic officials also say that the uproar over the ad is a Republican effort to deflect attention from the war -- and that it will not protect Republicans indefinitely. From their perspective, many Republicans have committed themselves to Bush's course against their better judgment, and might have to pay the political piper.

"To my dismay, not enough Republicans who I know don't support the president were not able to make the leap," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat and the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

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