Will Congress Finally Face Up to Their Responsibility and Debate Iraq?

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We are in the midst of a military quagmire in Iraq — a conflict that is costing precious American and Iraqi lives, leaving hundreds of thousands of Americans and Iraqis seriously injured, costing the United States more than a billion dollars a week with no end in site and feeding anti-Americanism around the world — yet the Congress has never declared war. Indeed, they’ve barely even debated Iraq policy. There have been some brief debates on amendments calling for an exit strategy and a charade of a debate after Rep. John Murtha called for redeployment. But no real debate.

That may finally change.

Six members of Congress, three Democrats and three Republicans, are calling for a full debate on ending the Iraq War. The group, known as the "April 5 Group," because they are planning the debate for April 5, includes Republican Representatives Ron Paul, Wayne Gilchrest and Walter B. Jones and Democratic Representatives Neil Abercrombie, Ike Skelton and Marty Meehan.

In a March 22, 2006 "Dear Colleague" letter they are urging support of H.R. 543 which seeks to have 17 hours of debate, equally divided between Republicans and Democrats on Iraq policy. In the letter they note: "Americans deserve an open and honest debate about the future of U.S. policy in Iraq by their representatives in Congress."

It is notable that Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO) is among those calling for a debate. Rep. Skelton is akin to Rep. John Murtha. He is strongly pro-military; indeed he is the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. When we started visiting Capitol Hill to urge an end to the war we were consistently told that the two key Members of the Democratic Party on military issues were Representatives Murtha and Skelton. When they came to see the need to end the war then the Democratic Party — and many Republicans — would join them. Hopefully, Rep. Skelton’s co-sponsoring of H.R. 543 is a signal that he is going to join his colleague, John Murtha, and urge a more sensible policy in Iraq.

And, having three Republicans join with three Democrats in the call for debate is also a very positive sign. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) is no surprise; he has been an ardent anti-interventionist Republican with strong libertarian leanings who has been consistently critical of the Iraq War. Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) is significant because he had been a strong supporter of the war but changed his mind when he became convinced that the basis for the war was inaccurate and he had been misled by faulty information. The third Republican, Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) is a rural Maryland Republican who had been a supporter of the invasion of Iraq, and while a co-sponsor of a bill to end the occupation has been very cautious in opposing the war.

In order for this debate to occur it will require a majority of members of the Congress to join in the call for debate. The "Dear Colleague" letter seeks majority support for a discharge petition for H.R. 543. If they succeed in getting a majority of legislators to join, the bill will be immediately debated on the House Floor.

This comes at a critical time. On March 21, 2006 President Bush said that U.S. troops will still be in Iraq after his presidency ends in 2009. When asked at a recent press conference when all U.S. forces would finally pull out of Iraq, Bush told the White House press corps: "That will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq." Bush’s term ends in January 2009. This announcement by President Bush put the Congress in a difficult position because voters are saying they oppose the war — indeed many voters are saying they will not support candidates or incumbents unless they call for withdrawal from Iraq. Even U.S. troops in Iraq support returning to the United States within a year.

Will Congress side with an unpopular lame duck president who is supporting an unpopular occupation that most observers recognize has failed. Or, will the Congress side with voters who increasingly oppose the war, the troops who want to come home and the foreign policy establishment who say the war was a mistake?

With President Bush’s popularity dropping and the November election rapidly approaching — with a hot summer in between for violence in Iraq to escalate and anti-war demonstrations in the United States to increase — Congress may realize they need a long, open debate in order to relieve the pressure that is building and distance themselves from an unpopular president.

There is a real chance that a majority in Congress will join in this call for debate on Iraq policy. You can help make this debate a reality by urging your elected representative to join in support of H.R. 543. You can find contact information for your representative at: http://democracyrising.us/content/view/379/165/.

An open debate on Iraq will force Members of Congress to take a clear stand. No more votes on "supporting the troops" by merely voting for more funding, now it is time for a debate on the central issues. Do we continue to occupy for Iraq? Can the occupation be successful? How do we end the Iraq occupation? How much money and how many troops are we willing to lose to the Iraq War?

The "April 5 Group" ends their letter to congressional colleagues saying: It is time! [Emphasis in original.]

Let’s hope the Congress finally has the courage to take responsibility by openly, and honestly, debating this issue.

Kevin Zeese [send him mail] is director of Democracy Rising.

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