Drafting of Iraq Resolution Spotlights Divisions

Posted May 7, 2004 at 6:03pm

Amid all of last week’s turmoil and partisan rhetoric on Iraq, House Republican and Democratic leaders briefly tried — but failed — to unite on a resolution condemning the now-infamous prison abuses.

The measure passed Thursday, 365-50, but it lacked bipartisan sponsorship. The story of its drafting is only the latest installment in the two parties’ largely futile efforts to work together on substantive issues this Congress.

And, as with several past episodes, Republicans and Democrats openly challenged each other’s motives as they related vastly different explanations of why the talks broke down.

“In the broader sense, [the Republicans] make everything into a partisan issue when it shouldn’t be,” said Brendan Daly, spokesman for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “That’s their standard operating procedure: To not give any ground and then afterward they claim we’re being the problem. It’s like ‘my way or the highway.’”

John Feehery, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), countered, “The Democratic leadership didn’t want this to be a bipartisan resolution. They look for reasons to say no. They don’t look for reasons to say yes. It is very difficult to to work in a bipartisan manner when they have no interest in being bipartisan.”

As the prison-abuse resolution gathered steam on Wednesday evening, the cooperation actually appeared to be going smoothly enough, as the staffs of Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and ranking member Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) huddled to work out the resolution’s language.

Somewhere between 9 and 10 p.m., the wording was sent to both parties’ leaders for review. Where the two camps differ is on the question of whether Skelton was on board at that point.

On Thursday, Hunter insisted that his Democratic counterpart supported the draft the committee staff had written.

“We had the thing all worked out,” Hunter said. “It was a go with Skelton.”

But at a press conference Thursday with Pelosi, Skelton said he had not agreed to anything and that his name should not have been on the resolution as a co-sponsor at that point.

“We were trying to reach a bipartisan effort,” Skelton said. “It had not been vetted all the way through. And consequently, since it was not a final agreement, [my name] was on there, frankly, prematurely. So we took it off.”

Once Pelosi’s staff saw the resolution, they went to the Republicans with two requests. They asked that the measure include a reference to the alleged misdeeds of American contractors in the prison abuse scandal, and they asked for the removal of two clauses asserting that Iraqis were enjoying “substantial improvements in essential services” and that their “quality of life … has significantly improved.”

Democrats argued that those issues were not relevant to the point of the resolution and diluted its focus.

“The resolution should be focused tightly on the scandal and the need to find out why it occurred and who should be held accountable,” Pelosi explained Thursday in her floor statement.

Republicans then made a counter-offer: They would soften the passage by removing the words “substantial” and “significantly.”

That was not enough for Democrats, and while Republican aides said afterwards they probably would have been willing in the end to remove the two clauses in the entirety, they conveyed no such offer to the Democrats.

Even more contentious was the disagreement over whether the resolution should refer to the activities of American contractors.

As the Republicans tell it, the Democrats sprung their demand for such wording on them, literally, at the eleventh hour.

“Pelosi’s office came in after 11 p.m. and demanded to put in language they hadn’t even drafted yet on contractors,” said a GOP leadership aide.

Daly said that Democrats only wanted to include a few words on the subject, and that the reason they hadn’t drafted language yet was that the leadership hadn’t even seen a draft until late Wednesday night. Pelosi complained Thursday that the GOP had been inflexible on the point.

“When we asked to put the contractors into the resolution, we were told, ‘Absolutely not,’” Pelosi said. “This was not just incidental. We said that we have concerns about the number and perhaps the activities of the contractors, we think this deserves investigation, and we were flat out told no, that that would not be included.”

But again, Republicans questioned Democrats’ true motives in wanting to include the contractor language.

“This is a ploy to talk about Halliburton,” said Feehery. “It’s extraneous to the debate.”

In the end, the resolution went to the floor without Skelton’s name on it, though he did ultimately vote for it, as did 150 other Democrats. Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) both voted no.

The margin of victory on an earlier Iraq resolution was more overwhelming: When the war in Iraq began last year, the House passed a resolution supporting the troops by a vote of 392-11. But even then, leadership aides exchanged sharp words after passage about the other side’s intransigence.

In March of this year, the House approved another resolution commemorating the first anniversary of the war’s start. In that case, Republicans drafted the measure unilaterally and made no attempt to forge a bipartisan consensus.