Moderate lawmakers' pleas for civility in Iraq debate unlikely to be heeded

6:51 AM, Dec 12, 2005   |    comments
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Moderates are imploring colleagues in Congress to tone down the rhetoric on Iraq as debate about President Bush's war policies has become increasingly bitter and partisan. Their pleas are likely to be ignored. The war is expected to be front and center in the upcoming congressional election year, particularly in several races where candidates are Iraq war veterans. Neither party has much incentive to pull its punches, with Republicans eager to paint Democratic critics of Bush's Iraq policies as soft on defense and Democrats looking to exploit his woes as polls show declining support for the war. Nevertheless, some senior lawmakers are appealing for courteousness, saying that while debate is essential to democracy, politics and partisanship should stop at the waters' edge. "The quality of congressional debate has an impact on events in Iraq and our prospects for success," Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in the first of several letters he plans to write to House and Senate members on the issue. "We should continually strive to elevate our debate by studying thoughtful sources of information and embracing civility in our discourse." Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who in recent weeks has broken with most of his Democratic brethren and largely supported the president's Iraq strategy, urged discussion that goes beyond "dueling partisan press conferences." "I hope that it goes on with a recognition that there are Republicans and Democrats on both sides, and that it should be conducted in the spirit of mutual respect and national interest," Lieberman said. It's no surprise that moderates are acting as referees. "They're the ones who are reaching across partisan aisles, trying to find common ground," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political rhetoric and campaigns. "It's the people on the partisan extreme that are the ones most likely to impugn integrity." Iraq has dominated debate this fall on Capitol Hill with accusations being tossed around almost daily. Democrats accuse Bush of misleading the United States into war and of failing to be candid about the current situation in Iraq. Republicans assert that Democrats are emboldening U.S. enemies with a "cut-and-run strategy." "One side uses the word lie, the other side implies treason," said Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. The war of words seemed to reach a low point just before lawmakers left for Thanksgiving break. Rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats nearly came to blows on the House floor during a debate over withdrawing U.S. troops. In a speech referencing a pullout proposal by Rep. John Murtha, a Democrat and decorated Vietnam veteran, Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, said: "Cowards cut and run, Marines never do." Democrats shouted her down -- causing the House to come to a standstill. "You guys are pathetic! Pathetic!" yelled Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass. Schmidt later apologized. That scene prompted Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to appeal for more reasoned discourse. The moderate Virginia Republican called for "bipartisanship on the war in Iraq, instead of more political posturing." Rep. Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, characterized the scene as "one flare-up" that doesn't represent the nature of the Iraq debate that night or every day in Congress. "There is great respect and civility," the California Republican said last week. But the top Democrat on Hunter's own panel, Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, differed. He called it unfortunate that the war rhetoric has become intensely partisan and nasty. "I like to be above that type of debate," Skelton said. Other lawmakers dismiss the notion that Iraq discussion has gotten out of hand -- at least in one chamber. "Not in the Senate," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on Warner's committee. "No, I don't feel there's a lack of civility around here," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., agreed. "There's at least a debate going on." By Liz Sidoti, Associated Press Writer

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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