Iraq debate hardens partisan lines

After a week and a half of Senate debate, including an all-night session on Tuesday, the possibility that legislation to de-escalate US military intervention in Iraq soon could be adopted by a strong bipartisan majority appears to have receded, at least until mid-September, if not well into next year. US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision on Wednesday to abruptly end debate on the Pentagon’s 2008 budget authorisation bill effectively shelved votes on several measures that might have gained significant Republican support and thus increased pressure on Bush to begin withdrawing US troops soon, albeit without a fixed deadline.

Left hanging was an amendment co-sponsored by the senior Republican members of the Senate’s Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, Richard Lugar and John Warner, that would require Bush to devise a new strategy in Iraq that would narrow the US military mission there and to begin implementing it by the end of this year. A second amendment co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of at least a dozen conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans would make the December 2006 recommendations of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, official US policy.

Included in the ISG recommendations were setting next March 31 as a “goal” for withdrawing all US combat troops from Iraq and engaging Iran and Syria in regional negotiations aimed at stabilising Iraq as part of a larger diplomatic offensive that would also feature intensified efforts to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict. Reid’s move to cut off debate followed a successful effort by Republican leaders to block a vote on an amendment co-sponsored by Reid and the current chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, that would have required Bush to begin withdrawing US combat troops before the year end.

To force a vote on the amendment, the Democratic leadership needed 60 out of the 99 senators, but it could muster only 52 — 48 of 50 Democrats, as well as four Republicans who broke ranks with Bush, who has vowed to veto any legislation that includes a firm timetable for withdrawal.

Most analysts believe that Republicans who stick with the president and his Iraq policy are likely to face heavy retribution at the ballot box, just as they did in last year’s mid-term elections which returned Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. That calculation appears to have contributed to Reid’s decision to suspend debate on the defence bill without permitting votes on the more bipartisan Lugar-Warner or ISG amendments, according to political observers.

“You’ve got at least half a dozen Republican senators who are going to be very vulnerable next year, and you don’t want to give them an easy out in the form of (the ISG amendment) or Lugar-Warner or anything like that,” said Christopher Preble, a foreign-policy specialist at the Cato Institute.

“What the Democrats are doing is trying to present a clear binary choice; their strategy is not really designed to win,” noted Steven Clemons, of the the New American Foundation. “That could be a disaster

for them in 2008, because the cold, hard reality is that they want Bush and these Republicans to own the war and to be held accountable in the minds of the voters.” — IPS