Squabbles between parties heat up over religion, Iraq war

Partisan sparring in the House intensified yesterday as Republicans and Democrats fought for the high ground in debates about the war in Iraq, religious expression and support for American troops abroad.

While partisanship is on display on a daily basis in the House, the recent war of words is notable for its ferocity and strategic importance as overall congressional approval ratings continue to slide.

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House Democratic leaders yesterday joined Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) in announcing a bill that would create a commission to investigate prisoner abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.


Republican leaders continued their criticism of congressional Democrats for a range of issues, from the Iraq war to alleged anti-Semitic remarks, while Democratic House leaders called for the implementation of an independent panel to investigate prisoner abuse in detention facilities in Cuba, Afghanistan and Iraq.

This partisan bickering has produced a handful of noteworthy outbursts over the past two weeks. The most glaring include Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Howard Dean saying the Republican Party is a party of “white Christians,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) cutting off microphones during a committee hearing to review the USA Patriot Act and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) comparing the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay to that meted out by Nazis in concentration camps or Soviets in the gulag.

Then, during remarks on the House floor Monday evening, Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.) said, “Like a moth to a flame, Democrats can’t help themselves when it comes to denigrating and demonizing Christians.”

He eventually asked for that line to be struck from the Congressional Record after Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), the ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, asked that it be “taken down,” which could have led to a rebuke for Hostettler.

“What else could [Hostettler] say?” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said yesterday during a press briefing, adding that Democrats “are constantly attacking people of faith.”

DeLay also had hard words for Durbin.

“Senator Durbin’s statement was a premeditated and monstrous attack against the United States military,” DeLay said. “These attacks are as dishonorable as the Democratic leadership.”

Durbin’s remarks came as the House was considering authorization bills for the Defense Department and the assembled intelligence agencies.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) yesterday downplayed the significance of Durbin’s remarks and said Republican outrage was a “diversionary tactic” to take attention away from the Republicans’ sagging approval ratings.

Democrats have gone on a foreign-policy offensive this week, proposing an investigation of prisoner abuse and the eventual withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

House Democratic leaders yesterday joined Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) in announcing a bill that would create an independent, 10-member commission to investigate prisoner abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. Democrats likened the proposed prisoner-abuse panel to the Sept. 11 commission, both in substance and legislative tactics.

Republicans initially rejected the idea of the Sept. 11 panel but ultimately bowed to pressure from victims’ families to have a full accounting of pre-war intelligence.
Waxman’s commission would provide a public alternative to a classified investigation of prison abuse now being conducted in a bipartisan manner by the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Republican leaders have already given the thumbs down to Waxman’s measure, ruling it out of order as an amendment to the pending intelligence bill. But Waxman said he was confident he had enough support among the Republican rank and file to create the commission.

“I think a majority would vote for it if the House would let us have a vote,” he said. The bill currently has 170 co-sponsors, all Democrats.

On Iraq, Democrats are asking the administration to develop an exit strategy. To that end, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) is scheduled to take to the House floor tomorrow night to read the names of servicemen and -women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Anthony Zinni, a former head of the U.S. Central Command, addressed Democrats during their weekly closed-door luncheon yesterday. The vocal critic of U.S. policy in Iraq told Democrats that the United States needs to define the mission in Iraq.

Republicans had also intended to talk about Iraq and national-security issues this week. That was before Durbin’s remarks caught fire in the national media and Pelosi called the Iraq war a “grotesque mistake” during floor debate Thursday about the defense authorization bill. In the wake of those remarks, Republicans opted to highlight both comments, according to a number of GOP leadership aides.

To start the week, the House Republican Conference office organized a press conference and series of one-minute floor statements defending the war effort and the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo. As part of this, the office also circulated menus and nutritional information for meals at the detention facility itself.

Late yesterday, the House Armed Services Committee released statements from seven members condemning Durbin’s remarks.

Republican sources said this coordinated rollout was a reaction to the statements made by Durbin and Pelosi.

“This was handed to us,” said Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the House Republican Conference. “You can’t plan that.”

Republican Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), the only Jewish member of the conference, put out a press release itemizing perceived anti-Semitic and anti-Israel remarks made over the years by elected Democrats.

“Partisan tensions have run high for years, but the parties in Washington have accelerated from periodic combat to an ongoing war,” Cantor wrote. “The weaponry now being utilized is message politics, with each side striving to frame their case for the public.

The Iraq war presents each party with a particularly difficult issue, said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, because each side must balance its message with political reality. That issue became even harder for the GOP after Democrats and Republican Reps. Walter Jones (N.C.) and Ron Paul (Texas) introduced legislation last week that calls for a timeline for troop withdrawal from Iraq.

“Republicans have to defend a war that was very badly planned and is costing much more in blood and treasure than the public was led to believe,” Mann said, while “Democrats struggle to define and agree on alternative policy that doesn’t simply write off the sacrifices already made by our military forces and accept defeat.”