Resolved: America great! Bin Laden evil! Go Bush!

Not even the inventor of "freedom fries" could stand to be present at the GOP-controlled Congress' absurd "debate" over Iraq.

Published June 16, 2006 12:50PM (EDT)

Rep. Walter Jones, the North Carolina Republican who invented the phrase "freedom fries," invited me into his Capitol Hill office Thursday morning, a cluttered space festooned from floor to ceiling with military memorabilia, Pentagon plaques and photographs of soldiers. Then he pulled out an e-mail he had recently received from an Army captain who served in Iraq.

The e-mail quoted another American soldier serving in Iraq, a voice that Jones wanted people to hear. "Tell all those assholes in D.C. to get us the f--- out of here. This is bullshit," Jones said, reading from the e-mail, but choosing not to pronounce the f-word in full. "Either that or tell them to tell Bush to send over the twins. They can bunk with me. That would be useful."

Jones is not a natural dove. He sits on the Armed Services Committee and his district includes Camp Lejeune, the home base of nearly 47,000 sailors and Marines. But Jones is one of a handful of Republican congressmen to break ranks with President Bush and the GOP leadership over Iraq. In recent months, he has been campaigning for a "full and honest" debate on the Iraq war. And he has written several letters to GOP committee chairmen and Majority Leader John Boehner, requesting the chance for a public vote on a pullout date.

Of course, none of that has happened. In April, Boehner told his colleagues that he would schedule a floor debate on Iraq, apparently bowing to pressure from Democrats and Republicans such as Jones. But this week, when the debate finally kicked off, Boehner and the Republican leadership pulled a bait and switch. Instead of an Iraq debate, they scheduled a debate on a resolution "declaring that the United States will prevail in the Global War on Terror." And then, in an election-year trick that is almost as old as the Congress itself, the GOP leadership barred any amendments on the resolution, effectively forcing Democrats to vote on whether or not they want Osama bin Laden to win.

Jones now says he feels duped by his own party's leadership. "Maybe I should have been less trusting, but I felt it would be a debate that would allow us to talk about policy," Jones told me. "I don't see how we would have gotten hurt if we had allowed members of both parties to go down to the floor to offer an amendment." To express his frustration, he appeared Wednesday at a press conference with Rep. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat from Hawaii, who bound his own hands in yellow twine to dramatize the bonds under which members of Congress toil.

But such publicity stunts could not prevent the Republican majority from having its way. Just before noon on Thursday, Republicans opened 10 hours of debate, which is set to continue into Friday. It was a move that set a potentially dangerous trap for Democrats less than five months away from the midterm elections. If they vote against the resolution, Democrats will be on record opposing victory in the war on terror. If they vote for the resolution, they will be on record endorsing the president's prosecution of the war on terror. As policy, the resolution is virtually irrelevant -- it changes nothing. As politics, however, it's a powder keg, a spectacle ready-made for televised attack ads during this fall's campaign season. "When our freedom is challenged, Americans do not run," thundered House Speaker Dennis Hastert, openly baiting his Democratic colleagues. "Stand up for freedom, adopt this resolution."'

Just off the House floor, in the gilded speakers gallery, Majority Leader Boehner passed his time just before Hastert's address by chain-smoking his Barclay cigarettes with a small crowd of reporters. When asked how he thought the debate would shape the 2006 elections, Boehner kept his cards close to his well-cut suit. "That's irrelevant to me at this point," he said. "This is the biggest issue in America, and the House of Representatives, the people's house, has a responsibility to debate this issue."

Boehner appeared to have a different view on the politics of Iraq earlier this week. On Tuesday, he sent out a memo to his Republican colleagues advising them to "conduct this debate as a portrait of contrasts between Republicans and Democrats." The memo continued with a call to paint Democrats as defeatists who are not "dedicated to victory" and who lack "a coherent national security policy." In the memo, Boehner even quoted 1960s Democratic President John Kennedy as an example of the high standards of 21st century Republican principles: "The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it."

This apparently got the goat of Rep. Rahm Emanuel, of Illinois, who is orchestrating the 2006 campaign for House Democrats. When Emanuel stood up to speak his piece, he quoted his own Kennedy passage about the cost of liberty, before declaring, "Democrats will never put American service members in harm's way without a plan and without support. For that, you need to sit and watch the complacency of the Republican Congress."

This sort of tit-for-tat, at a level that would embarrass most high school debating teams, continued throughout the day. Both sides deftly demeaned each other, stopping just short of hurling spitballs, epithets or wagging their tongues. Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha took the lead in providing an unending stream of depressing facts and statistics about the war in Iraq. Electricity and oil production are down, he said, while the number of daily attacks, the monthly price tag and the estimated size of the insurgency were all growing. "This is rhetoric," he announced, after one Republican had given his statement. "Things are not getting better."

Hastert, meanwhile, opted for more R-rated fare in an effort to prove that, in fact, things had improved in Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein, Hastert said, "School girls were raped. Iraqi patriots were thrown alive into meat grinders."

For his part, Walter Jones chose to avoid the whole ordeal. "I don't want to give any credibility to what I think is a charade. My two minutes, maybe three, is not going to change anything," he told me in the morning. When called for a vote, he said he planned to vote "present." "It is not an honest debate," he explained. "If it was an honest debate I would vote one way or the other."

Before leaving his office, I asked him what it would take for the House to have a real debate about policy in Iraq. He paused a moment, and then appeared embarrassed by the answer. "I don't want to say this because I'm a Republican," he began. "But if things change, then obviously that could change the rule in the debate."

He was talking about the very real chance that Democrats will retake control of the House on Election Day.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

MORE FROM Michael Scherer

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Democratic Party Iraq War Republican Party