Going into Thursday's Iraq debate in Congress, both sides had news points to bolster their arguments -- for war supporters, it was recent the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the completion of the Iraqi cabinet; for war critics, the fact that U.S. deaths in Iraq today hit 2,500.
Both also went into the debate armed with political talking points. The most unusual came via a document sent out by Office of the Secretary of Defense to an assortment of congressional aides, as well as to the Iraqi Embassy and the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium. The 74-page document is an exhaustive rebuttal of criticisms of the war and a defense of the administration's conduct of the war.
The document, labeled "Iraq floor debate prep book," was emailed on Wednesday afternoon to a handful of Democrats as well as Republicans -- and was then abruptly recalled. Thursday afternoon, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) sent a letter to Rumsfeld complaining that his office had spent "taxpayer dollars to produce partisan political documents." Lautenberg also suggested that the document may have violated laws prohibiting the Executive Branch from using taxpayer dollars for lobbying and propaganda activities.
The Pentagon later said the document was produced by the National Security Council -- but did not offer an explanation as to why it was sent out by the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Republicans on the Hill were not happy that the document was sent to Democrats -- or that it was produced at all. "I've never seen anything like it," said one Republican aide, noting that the document went well beyond a Statement of Administration Policy. "I mean, a 74-page document -- are you kidding me?" The aide added: "It did more harm than good for the Republican cause."
A New Debate Over an Old Issue
The flap came as both chambers engaged in contentious debates on Iraq, and specifically, the question of when to withdraw troops. House members held their first full-day debate on Iraq since Congress granted President Bush the authority to wage war in 2002.
The House was specifically debating a resolution that declared it was not in the "national security interest" of the United States to set an "arbitrary date" for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. The resolution also cast Iraq as part of the global war on terror, and declared the U.S. was "committed" to finishing the mission in Iraq.
Democrats complained that the debate was unfair, since they were prevented from offering amendments or alternatives. But it produced plenty of fiery rhetoric from both sides.
"Our fighting men and women remain committed to the effort [but] the battle is not over," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "The alternative would be to cut and run and wait for them to regroup and bring the terror back to our shores."
"This resolution is a restatement of the failed policy of this administration," responded Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.), a war critic and former Marine who advocates withdrawing troops. "You know who wants us to stay in Iraq right now?" he asked. "Al Qaeda wants us there because it recruits people for them.
In the Senate, Republicans tried to exploit divisions among Democrats over the issue of troop withdrawal, by bringing up a proposal they knew would fail to pass -- one requiring that almost all U.S troops leave Iraq by the end of the year.
It was identical to a measure filed by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), but it was Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) who brought it up; other Senate Democrats have been working to come up with a consensus alternative -- but as of yet they have not been able to agree on language. Kerry aides say he still plans to bring up his amendment for a vote next week.