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The First Step

Live from the House Iraq debate.

4:41 PM, Feb 13, 2007 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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At 12:31 p.m. on Tuesday, the House voted to debate House Concurrent Resolution 63, a 97-word statement of support for the troops in Iraq and disagreement with President Bush's January 10 decision to send more than 20,000 additional combat soldiers there. Over the next several days, culminating in a vote on the nonbinding resolution expected sometime Friday, every single member of the House of Representatives will get a chance to voice his opinion on Bush's new war strategy. In all likelihood the 435-person debate will be tedious, intermittently dramatic, and repetitive. And here's the thing: This is only the beginning.

As I write, Rep. David Scott, Democrat of Georgia, is reminding the Congress that the resolution in question does not cut any funds for the war in Iraq. Of course that's the case. But there will be plenty of opportunities in the near future for Congress to reduce, restrict, or condition appropriations for the war in Iraq. And these are opportunities that will not be missed. In fact, listening closely to the public statements of the House Democratic leadership, you begin to understand that they see this first vote as the necessary precondition for any further congressional action to end the war in Iraq.

"A vote of diapproval will set the stage for additional Iraq war legislation," Pelosi said during her speech on the House floor Tuesday. While offering generous words of praise for American soldiers in Iraq, California Democrat Tom Lantos, the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, said the vote on Resolution 63 will be the "first step on their journey home." House majority leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland issued a public statement saying that this week's debate is "a first step in our continuing efforts to affect Iraq policy." House majority whip James Clyburn of South Carolina issued a similar statement.

There are two ways to view such rhetoric. One is to dismiss it as vaporous, a meaningless gesture in the direction of the antiwar left, whose partisans want the Congress to take immediate, concrete steps to force America to "redeploy" from Iraq. This is something that the nonbinding resolution will not--cannot--do. But the other way to view the leaders' utterances is to take them seriously. In this view, passage of the nonbinding resolution will test the waters of public opinion. If the public doesn't reject Congress's actions, and it probably won't, then the majority will have gained some degree of legitimacy to press matters further. And they will be able to do that later this spring, when Congress considers supplemental appropriations bills for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the Fiscal Year 2008 Defense Appropriation Bill. Already several of the Democrats who have taken to the House floor have said they believe Resolution 63 does not go far enough; that they look forward to de-funding Bush's "escalation" of the war.

"The war in Iraq is not going to go away," Rep. Dave Weldon, a Florida Republican, told his House colleagues on Tuesday. And he's right--not in Iraq, not in America, and not in the halls of the U.S. Congress. At least, not any time soon.

Matthew Continetti is associate editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD and author of The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine (Doubleday).