After Senate approval on Tuesday of a measure calling on President Bush to provide more specifics about his future strategy in Iraq, lawmakers in Congress are headed for difficult negotiations on language regarding the interrogation and treatment of detainees, among other issues. Republicans and Democrats are putting their own interpretation on things as they approach what are likely to be difficult negotiations.
If the Senate action made one thing clear, it is that support for a prolonged U.S. presence in Iraq, never strong to begin with, has eroded still further, even among the strongest supporters of President Bush in Congress.
The Senate voted 79 to 19 in favor of a non-binding measure calling on Iraqis to assume more of the burden for security in their country, and describing 2006 as a pivotal transitional year leading to full Iraqi sovereignty.
In the wake of the Senate vote, Democrats lost no time citing it as proof of what they say is a loss of patience on the part of Americans regarding Iraq, and the reasons used by the administration to go to war.
"This war has gone on for over three years, after the administration promised us, in the words of (Defense] Secretary Rumsfeld, that he couldn't imagine we would be there for more than six months. It's now beyond three years [with] no end in sight. The American people are frustrated as they should be. Frustrated by the fact that this administration made a case for the war in Iraq that was false," said Democratic Senator Richard Durbin.
President Bush in recent days has denounced this kind of criticism from Democratic critics who continue to allege that he and or members of his administration manipulated pre-war intelligence.
The White House has also sought to portray the Senate vote as bolstering President Bush's position that setting any timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops would only serve to strengthen the will of insurgents in Iraq.
Republicans sought to put a different spin [interpretation] on the Senate vote, with more emphasis on the message it sends to Iraqis, than to President Bush. "A forward-looking message, that we expect the Iraqis to continue their progress, and the Congress in its oversight will continue to receive reports on the progress being made. The timeline we should focus on is December 15th [and] the election of a parliamentary government. The establishment of a constitutional democracy coupled with the continued training of Iraqi security forces, now exceeding 210-thousand personnel, will in time allow the Iraqis to defend themselves and the United States to bring our troop levels down," said North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole.
But some lawmakers from both political parties have expressed skepticism about figures provided by the administration regarding the exact number of fully-trained Iraqi personnel.
The Senate vote has re-energized supporters of a proposed resolution in the House of Representatives urging the administration to set out a plan by next year to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq.
These lawmakers, with support from just a few House Republicans, have vowed to use a special legislative tactic that would enable their resolution to be debated in the full House.
However, even these most passionate of Iraq war critics know that before its 79 to 19 vote, the Senate had rejected a separate Democrat-sponsored amendment urging President Bush to set a timetable for a gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
Meanwhile, the stage is set for what are likely to be difficult negotiations over language, in the Senate version of defense-related legislation, that would ban cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees and standardize interrogation procedures used by U.S. troops.
The anti-torture language was authored by Republican Senator John McCain.
Congressman John Murtha, who is among the strongest pro-military Democrats in the House, intends to propose an amendment that would require House-Senate negotiators to accept the language against mistreatment of detainees. "You can't have America saying, in the House of Representatives [that] we are for torture. I mean, that is what the headlines all over the world would be."
Mr. Murtha dismisses suggestions by some Republicans that it would be sufficient to keep anti-torture language in legislation that authorizes spending and sets overall policy, as opposed to the bill that actually appropriates defense funding.
Mr. Murtha says language against torture should be included in both bills, adding he doubts President Bush would veto a defense bill containing such language, as the president has threatened to do.