The House of Representatives has rejected a timetable for pulling US forces out of Iraq after a ferociously partisan debate, forcing lawmakers in both parties to go on record on a major issue in re-election campaigns nationwide.
A day after the Senate took the same position against troop withdrawal, the Republican-led House voted 256-153 to approve a nonbinding resolution that says an "arbitrary date for the withdrawal or redeployment" of US forces is not in the national interest.
"Achieving victory is our only option," declared House Majority Leader John Boehner, casting Democrats as defeatists who want to retreat in the face of terrorist threats. "We must not shy away."
"`Stay the course' is not a strategy, it's a slogan," answered House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi as she called for a new direction in a war she labeled "a grotesque mistake."
Angling for political advantage, House Republicans engineered the debate and vote as polls show voters favoring Democrats to replace Republicans as the controlling party.
Those same polls show the public increasingly frustrated with the war as the death toll and price tag continue to rise. Voters could hold it against incumbent candidates, regardless of political party, come the November elections that will decide who runs Congress.
Republicans across Capitol Hill are sensitive to those political realities.
Republican leaders in both the House and Senate sought to put lawmakers of both parties, and particularly Democrats, on record on the conflict, and looked to draw attention to deep Democratic divisions on the war.
Senate Republicans succeeded in doing that on Thursday. In a maneuver Democrats assailed as a political stunt, Republican leaders brought up legislation calling for withdrawing combat troops by year's end and quickly dismissed it on a 93-6 vote. Six Democrats were in the minority.
It was the House Republicans' turn a day later.
They scheduled a vote on their symbolic resolution that also praises US troops and labels the Iraq war part of the larger global fight against terrorism.
Democrats denounced the Republican-orchestrated debate and vote as a politically motivated charade, and most, including Pelosi, voted against the measure. They said that supporting it would have the effect of affirming US President George W. Bush's "failed policy" in Iraq.
Still, 42 Democrats broke ranks and joined with all but three Republicans to support the resolution. Two Republicans and three Democrats declined to take a position by voting present.
Balking carried a risk for Democrats, particularly when they see an opportunity to win back control of Congress from the Republican Party, because Republicans were expected to use Democratic "no" votes to claim that their opponents don't support US troops.
Within two hours of the House vote, the Republican Senate campaign committee circulated news releases that said Congressman Harold Ford Jr, a Democrat running for an open Senate seat in Tennessee, and Congressman Sherrod Brown, a Democrat challenging Senator Mike DeWine in Ohio, voted to "cut and run" from Iraq.
Lawmakers were mindful of the political implications of the votes throughout the debate that ran for more than 12 hours over two days.
In floor speeches, several Republican incumbents who face tough challenges from Democrats in November tried to strike a balance. They carefully criticized the resolution that their leaders had written, calling it weak and incomplete, but then reluctantly voted in favor of it.