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Friday, June 16, 2006 - Page updated at 08:42 AM

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As Congress clashes over Iraq, a moment of silence for 2,500

Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON — After more than three years and 2,500 deaths, Congress on Thursday began its most extensive and impassioned debate about the war in Iraq, with Republicans demanding support for President Bush's course and Democrats calling for a change in direction to allow U.S. troops to come home.

Lawmakers were expected to talk late into the night, resume debate today and vote on a resolution by Republican leaders. The highly partisan resolution rejects specific timetables for redeploying troops out of Iraq and casts the war as a central front in the war on terrorism.

The spectacle of Congress taking on a broad debate on the merits of the war reflects the urgency lawmakers feel about addressing what has become a volatile political situation with midterm congressional elections coming in November. Democrats are trying to capitalize on voters' general disenchantment with the war, while many Republicans are trying to portray themselves as resolute.

Republicans in the Senate and House sought to put lawmakers of both parties on record on an issue certain to be central in the elections.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., cast the debate in sweeping historic terms, saying the objective was to protect Americans from terrorists at home and preserve the U.S. way of life.

"This resolution is about more than the war in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Hastert, who rarely speaks on the floor and votes on only the most important occasions. "It is about a global war to protect American ideals, and the democracy and values on which this great nation was founded. This resolution, like this war itself, is about freedom."

Democrats, however, called the proceedings undemocratic because Republicans would not allow them to offer amendments. And they blamed the president for politicizing intelligence gathering, barreling into the war without a plan and making repeated mistakes.

"Democrats are united in saying we need a new direction in Iraq," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. "This is a war that is a grotesque mistake."

As the midterm elections near, many Republicans are hoping to tout achievements in Iraq and to turn public opinion in their favor. But opinion polls show Americans think the war in Iraq is the most important issue facing the nation, and they have been disappointed in how Bush and Congress have handled it.

Still, the timing of this week's debate could not have been better for Republicans. The recent killing of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the completion of an Iraqi Cabinet and the emergence of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may help Republicans make the case that the situation in Iraq is improving.

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In the Senate, Republicans scored a quick political victory Thursday, when Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., offered an amendment he said was taken from a proposal written by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., that called for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by the end of the year. The amendment was defeated, 93-6.

But Democrats employed their own bit of symbolism when Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, asked for a moment of silence on the House floor to mark the 2,500th U.S. combat death, which occurred Thursday.

The Pentagon did not give specifics on the latest death.

At the White House, press secretary Tony Snow called the number a "sad benchmark."

From one speaker to the next throughout the long day of House speeches, the strategy on both sides of the aisle was clear. Republicans stressed the evils of terrorism, while supporting the troops, and Democrats questioned the administration's competence and picked apart statements about the conflict.

"The truth has been a major casualty of the war in Iraq," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who supports pulling out troops.

"It is worth reviewing just a few of the statements presented as truth that were told over the last four years, some remarkably being said again today, that have been proven not true, never true and still not true."

Schakowsky noted that Vice President Dick Cheney said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction; Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the war would cost $50 billion (the cost has surpassed $300 billion), and Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended May 1, 2003.

In preparation for the debate, the Pentagon put together an unusual briefing book, laying out the case for war and providing responses to potential criticism.

The book was sent to lawmakers, including members of Congress who oppose the war, and the Pentagon tried to recall it.

Republicans ticked off terrorist attacks that have occurred, beginning with the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, when Ronald Reagan was president, and including the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

Linking those attacks and the war in Iraq, lawmakers said the United States must not waver.

But Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., the Democrats' leading war critic, said it is time to leave the war-torn nation.

"Only the Iraqis can solve the problem in Iraq," said Murtha, a decorated Marine.

"They're fighting with each other, and our troops are caught in between, and I say it's time to redeploy."

Senate OKs $94.5 billion more for war, storms

WASHINGTON — An emergency-spending bill to pay for war and storm-recovery costs was sent to President Bush after easily passing the Senate on Thursday. The 98-1 vote was a rare moment of consensus on a day of anguished debate in Congress over the Iraq war.

Bush signed the measure into law hours after receiving it.

The $94.5 billion emergency bill includes nearly $66 billion for continued operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and nearly $20 billion in disaster assistance for the Gulf Coast. Lawmakers added the $2.3 billion Bush had sought to combat a potential avian-flu pandemic and nearly $2 billion to beef up security along the U.S.-Mexico border, including $708 million to deploy National Guard troops.

Faced with a White House veto threat, House and Senate negotiators stripped out $14 billion in unrelated additional funding that the Senate had added.

Though Congress has not resisted Iraq-related costs, which total nearly $320 billion, lawmakers are increasingly irritated by the White House's reliance on the emergency-spending process. The Senate voted unanimously Wednesday night to require that future war funding be factored into the annual federal budgets.

The bill approved Thursday was the ninth emergency measure since Sept. 11, 2001 — all off the books.

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