By Oliver M. Style

Democrats may have rejoiced after taking back the U.S. Congress last November, but their razor-thin majority in the Senate is turning out to be a tough pill to swallow—at least when it comes to Iraq.

Senators narrowly rejected a motion last Saturday, Feb. 17 to force debate on a non-binding resolution opposing President Bush’s deployment of 21,500 additional troops to the troubled war zone. Although the 56-34 vote had a majority in favor, it failed to garner the 60 needed to initiate a proposed rebuke of the President’s controversial plan.

Compared to their Senate partners across the Capitol, House Democrats had an easier time debating—and eventually passing—the same resolution. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) led the days-long war of words between Democratic skeptics and Republican supporters of the Bush administration’s new strategy, resulting in a decisive but sharply divided 246-182 vote on Friday, Feb. 16. A total of 17 Republicans joined their colleagues on the other side of the aisle to formally denounce the proposed troop surge—whereas only two Democrats broke party lines to vote against the resolution.

“By voting for this resolution, we are making a promise to the American people to change [the] United States’ policy on the war,” said Representative Sam Farr (D-Santa Cruz), who contributed to the debate last week in the House of Representatives. “This resolution doesn’t end the war, but it begins a new direction.”

In spite of the fact that the repudiation of President Bush’s war strategy carries no real legal weight due to its non-binding nature, Rep. Farr believes that it sends an important signal to the millions of voters who, in his opinion, handed Congress back to the Democrats to enact change in Iraq.

“Some say this resolution is meaningless,” Farr said. “I disagree. This is the first time that we have said ‘enough is enough’ to the president. It is a good start.”

Isebill Gruhn, professor emerita of international politics at UC Santa Cruz, agreed that the attempt to symbolically isolate the president in his push for more troops on the ground in Iraq was not an unusual step for Congress to take during a time of war—especially an unpopular war.

“Non-binding resolutions are neither new nor inappropriate when troops are in the field,” Gruhn said. “Congress passed non-binding resolutions regarding other wars and conflicts in the past. Nor are non-binding resolutions meaningless.”

But she criticized the timing of this particular legislative effort, which comes at a moment when many—including the recently defunct Iraq Study Group—are suggesting a troop pull-out instead of an increase in soldiers.

“Congress also has the obligation to play its checks and balances role and thus must at some point go beyond ‘expressions’ and take actions,” Gruhn said. “Given the seriousness of the disaster in Iraq, and the daily loss of Iraqi and American lives, it can be observed that Congressional political games right now are not a profile in courage but testimony to their lack of serious engagement with this historic tragedy.”

The bipartisan resolution, known as H.Con.Res. 63 in the House, expressed continued support for U.S. troops currently in Iraq but offered harsh criticism of the president’s plan to escalate the conflict by sending additional military personnel. During last week’s debate, Democrats pointed to previous failed efforts to pour more troops into Iraq, as well as the rapidly intensifying sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shias as indicators that the White House’s Iraq plan is misguided.

Though the resolution’s passage was never in doubt, Republicans still used the debate as an opportunity to voice their disapproval of the Democrats’ intention to pull the proverbial rug from underneath President Bush. Representative Peter King (R-NY) described it as “wrong” that Congress was attempting to “control or restrict strategic battlefield decisions,” saying that “it will come back to haunt us for years to come.”

Other, however, including Ronnie Lipschutz, professor of international politics at UCSC, believe the non-binding resolution is not enough to address the inadequacies that have plagued the U.S. strategy in Iraq over the past five years.

“I am enormously disappointed that the Democrats are not voting to impose something binding on President Bush,” Lipschutz said. “I believe that such non-binding resolutions simply reflect the Democrats wanting to play things safe in 2008 and not be accused of ‘losing Iraq.’”