The House of Representatives voted largely along party lines last week to hand the president his first wartime rebuke, with two local freshman representatives at the forefront of the Democratic push for Congress to go further and set a timetable that would lead the U.S. military out of Iraq.
"The time for more troops was four years ago," declared U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-District 8), during a Feb. 13 floor speech in support of the nonbinding resolution that opposed the plan to send 20,000 additional soldiers to the war-torn nation.
"An open-ended strategy that ends in more faceless roadside bombs and more street corner memorials in America is not one that I will support," he added.
Murphy — who served in Baghdad from 2003 to 2004 — introduced a bill that contains a timetable that's received considerable attention called the "Iraq War De-Escalation Act of 2007." Co-sponsoring the measure in the Senate is U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), whose presidential campaign has put the media spotlight on this and virtually anything he does.
In a Feb. 13 USA Today/Gallup poll, 51 percent of respondents supported the passage of a nonbinding resolution, while 57 percent backed Congress placing a cap on the number of troops in Iraq, and 63 percent favored setting a timetable for withdrawing all U.S. troops.
The Murphy/Obama bill would limit the number of American soldiers in Iraq at the level that preceded Bush's plan, and mandate a phased "redeployment" of troops starting May 1, with the goal of having American forces out of the country by March 31, 2008.
However, the measure allows for some flexibility, including the notion that forces could remain in Iraq beyond that set date if the Shi'ite-led government meets a series of conditions.
An Open Debate?
Not to be outdone, U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-District 7) — a retired admiral who commanded a fleet that conducted operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan — has put forth his own "Enhancing America's Security Through Redeployment From Iraq Act." It calls for nearly all U.S. forces to be redeployed from Iraq by the end of the year, with the exception of special-operations forces and counterterrorism units.
"I firmly believe in a planned end to our military engagement in Iraq within the next year," said Sestak, who delivered opening remarks in the four-day debate.
Ryan Rudominer, Sestak's spokesman, said that the legislator was still gathering co-sponsors for the bill.
U.S. Reps. Allyson Schwartz (D-District 13), Bob Brady (D-District 1) and Chaka Fattah (D-District 2) all supported the resolution. In the end, 17 Republicans joined them. Some analysts projected the defections would number as high as 40.
U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-District 6) — who won a tough re-election campaign against a challenger who tried to paint him as too supportive of Bush's Iraq policies — was not among them.
"Where is the "new direction" in this resolution?" Gerlach asked in his House floor speech. "It simply states, in essence, that the current plan is bad. That may be good politics for some in this chamber, but it is highly irresponsible, and it is no way to fight a war."
Gerlach also reiterated the theme articulated by many in the GOP that the resolution will serve to undercut troop morale.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) has been working to have the same resolution approved by the Senate, according to spokesman Larry Smar. Several weeks ago, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) voted to quell debate, but last week he switched tunes and said that the Senate risked irrelevance if it did not bring the matter to the floor for an open debate.
So, where does that leave things?
"I don't think it's encouraging when you have the Congress that passes a nonbinding resolution that sends the wrong message to our troops and our allies and enemies abroad," said Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which is supporting Bush's plan.
"We're going to work to make sure that under no circumstances can the Democrats continue to go through this dangerous effort," he said.
It's no surprise that on the other side, the National Jewish Democratic Council is behind the party leadership's efforts.
"If you look at the war in Iraq and the instability it has caused in the Middle East, it has not been good for Israel," said David Goldenberg, a spokesman for the NJDC.
Reactions from the major national Jewish organizations are still rather muted.
Back in 2005, the Reform movement became the first major national Jewish organization to call for phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq. On March 12, the movement's executive committee will consider a new resolution that, like the one passed by the House, opposes the "surge" plan. It would also call for the administration to set a specific timetable for ending the war.
"We wanted to stimulate a debate [within the Jewish community]. Whether you are for the war or against the war, how the United States handles it has enormous implications for America's well-being, for Israel's well-being," said Rabbi David Saperstein, the executive director of the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism. "[The 2005 resolution] clearly has had an impact, just not as broad an impact as we would have hoped."