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House votes against troop buildup in Iraq

LA Times | February 17, 2007  
Richard Simon

After four days of contentious debate, the House on Friday repudiated President Bush's decision to send more U.S. troops to Iraq — the first official challenge by the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill to his management of the war.

The nonbinding resolution expressing disapproval of the troop buildup passed 246 to 182, largely along party lines, with 17 Republicans joining 229 Democrats to back what amounts to a rare wartime rebuke of a commander in chief. Voting against it were 180 Republicans and two Democrats.

The sharp partisan split was a disappointment to Democratic leaders, who had hoped for more GOP support, and it lessened the vote's political impact.

Still, the vote marked a milestone in the declining public support for the nearly 4-year-old war, and it signified the growing Democratic determination to press for a de-escalation of U.S. involvement in the conflict.

"Today, in a loud voice, the Congress of the United States has said to the president, 'Mr. President, we need a new direction in Iraq,' " House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said.

During this week's debate on the resolution, lawmakers on both sides of the argument characterized it as a first step toward a more concrete Democratic push to change Bush's course in Iraq. An effort already is underway in the House to attach strings to the latest White House war funding request, a move aimed at delaying — and perhaps thwarting — much of the new troop deployment.

Democrats warned the president to take heed. "If need be, Congress will end this war — with binding legislation," said Rep. Allan B. Mollohan of West Virginia, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Democrats gained control of the House and Senate in last fall's election due in large part to voter disaffection with the war. Today, the Senate is meeting in a rare Saturday session for a vote on whether that chamber will take up the House resolution.

Bush has said he intends to ignore the message sent by the House measure, though he has expressed concern about Congress taking further action that would limit his stewardship of the war.

After the House vote, the White House issued a statement saying that Bush ordered the troop buildup "because he, like most Americans, believed the existing situation in Iraq was unacceptable."

The statement also noted that Congress would have the opportunity to "show its support for the troops" by approving his request for $93 billion in additional war funding — with most of the money targeted for Iraq.

Republicans were gearing up for the next fight, portraying the symbolic resolution as the opening gambit in a "slow-bleed" strategy that would cut off funding for troops in harm's way.

Several GOP lawmakers pressed that case in arguing against the measure Friday. House Minority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri criticized the resolution as the start of "an all-too-binding spiral toward defeat in a fight that we cannot afford to lose."

The two-sentence resolution first states that "Congress and the American people will continue to support and protect" U.S. forces serving in Iraq — phrasing Democrats hope will undercut attacks that they are undermining the troops.

The second sentence says Congress "disapproves of the decision" Bush announced in a nationally televised speech Jan. 10 to add 21,500 troops to the 135,000-plus already in Iraq.

GOP leaders considered it a victory to limit defections to 17 of their 201 members.

Still, discontent within a GOP caucus that once provided near lock-step support for Bush's Iraq policies was evident in the debate leading up to the vote. In their floor speeches, several GOP lawmakers distanced themselves from the troop increase and said they doubted it would quell the violence in Iraq, even as they announced their intention to oppose the resolution.

In a typical comment, Rep. Roscoe B. Bartlett of Maryland said Friday that he was voting against the measure "not because I believe that the [troop] surge will be helpful, but rather because I believe that a yes vote will send the wrong message to our enemies and might send the wrong message to our troops."

Democratic leaders insisted that they were pleased with the GOP support the resolution garnered.

"This is the first time you've had a break in the Republicans' blind support for a policy that has led us into a blind alley," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

But the difficulties facing Democrats in influencing Bush's war strategy will probably be apparent today as the Senate meets to try to move forward with a debate on the House resolution.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been trying for weeks to engage the chamber in a discussion on the troop-increase plan. Reid said Friday: "Americans deserve to know whether their senator stands with the president and his plan to deepen our military commitment in Iraq."

In the Senate, however, the minority party has more tools than are available in the House to keep an issue from coming up, and Republicans have succeeded in blocking Reid's efforts.

There was no indication Reid would have any better luck in overcoming that obstacle in today's session.

Senate GOP leaders have opposed allowing the debate on the troop increase to proceed because Reid has refused to permit a vote on an alternative Republican resolution aimed at waylaying moves to cut military funding.

"There's no question that the Democrats in the House and Senate intend to tie the president's hands when it comes to the conduct of war in Iraq," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Friday. "That's why we want a vote in the House and Senate that says … the United States Congress will not cut funding for our troops in harm's way."

During the House debate, 392 of the chamber's 434 current members spoke. Many of the lawmakers sprinkled their speeches with quotations from President Lincoln, Napoleon and other historic figures.

The resolution's opponents contended it would embolden America's enemies and demoralize U.S. troops. They also repeatedly assailed Democrats for failing to offer an alternative to Bush's plan in Iraq, a fight they said was a crucial front in the larger war on terrorism.

"Our words have consequences," Rep. Vito J. Fossella (R-N.Y.) said Friday. "If we surrender this battlefield, which battlefield will our enemy choose next? New York … Los Angeles … Washington?"

Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) said, "Make no mistake about this: What we are doing with this resolution is not a salute to G.I. Joe, it's a capitulation to Jihadist Joe."

Closing the debate for Republicans, Texas Rep. Sam Johnson, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, said: "It's time to stand up for my friends who did not make it home and those who fought and died in Iraq…. We must support them all the way.''

He then delivered a salute.

The resolution's backers argued that the troop increase continued a flawed strategy that had failed to stem violence and had put U.S. troops in the middle of a civil war.

"As the nation's representatives, it is our constitutional duty to stop the madness," Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said. "I will not vote for any money which would allow the president to escalate our involvement in this war."

Scoffing at the chances of success for Bush's new plans, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) said: "Sending 20,000 more troops is no more than stay-the-course on steroids."

Friday's vote was in stark contrast to earlier votes on the war when the House was under Republican rule. In 2002, the House voted 296 to 133 to authorize the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

"The difference between today and 2002 is that a majority of this House and this Congress are no longer willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt he enjoyed five years ago," said Mollohan, who was among those opposing the 2002 resolution.

The war has claimed the lives of more than 3,100 U.S. troops, and more than 25,000 have been wounded, according to Pentagon figures.

The California delegation split along party lines on the resolution, with all of the state's 34 House Democrats supporting it and all of the 19 Republicans opposing it.

 

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