By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 24, 2007
A sharply divided House voted yesterday to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq by next summer, attaching a timetable for withdrawal to the billions of dollars in war funding President Bush has demanded to prosecute an increasingly unpopular war.
Within minutes of passage, Bush denounced the bill as "an act of political theater" and an abdication of responsibility, sternly repeating his pledge to veto it.
"These Democrats believe that the longer they can delay funding for our troops, the more likely they are to force me to accept restrictions on our commanders, an artificial timetable for withdrawal, and their pet spending projects. This is not going to happen," the president said. "The Democrats have sent their message. Now it's time to send their money."
But Democrats were in no mood to compromise after a 218 to 212 vote that largely united the fractious Democratic caucus behind one of the toughest antiwar measures ever to pass a house of Congress during combat operations. Just two Republicans, Reps. Wayne T. Gilchrest (Md.) and Walter B. Jones (N.C.), voted in favor. Fourteen Democrats -- the party's most conservative members and its most liberal -- voted no.
The bill would establish strict standards for resting, training and equipping combat troops before their deployment and lay down binding benchmarks for the Iraqi government, such as assuming control of security operations, quelling sectarian violence and more equitably distributing oil revenue. If progress is not made toward those benchmarks, some troops would be required to come home as early as July. In any event, troop withdrawals would have to begin in March 2008, with all combat forces out by Aug. 31, 2008.
"We answered the call that so many families here in America were asking our Congress to do," said Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D-Pa.), a former paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division who fought in Iraq and has become one of his party's leading spokesmen on the war. "No longer is this Congress going to stand idly by and watch our brave and heroic men and women go to referee a religious civil war."
"Proudly, this new Congress voted to bring an end to the war in Iraq," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who achieved by far the biggest victory of her three-month-old speakership.
The $124 billion legislation includes more than $100 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus billions more than Bush requested for combat equipment and training, for military housing and health care, to address the flaws in mental health care, brain trauma treatment and other issues that surfaced in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal. Billions more were added for veterans' care, agricultural assistance and drought relief, homeland security, and Gulf Coast hurricane recovery.
Members of both parties called it a historic vote, but for very different reasons. Democrats hailed it as the moment the people's house rose up after four years of war to demand an end to a conflict that has cost more than 3,200 American lives, countless Iraqi dead and nearly half a trillion tax dollars. Republicans labeled it a catastrophic call for surrender.
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) disparaged the bill as "a poorly assembled wish list of non-emergency spending requests, wrapped in a date-certain declaration of defeat."
"We have our moment of truth," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told the House. "We have our opportunity to do what our forefathers have done, and that's to stand up, support our troops and to win, because the outcome of failure is actually too ominous to even think about."
With only two defections, an aggressive campaign by White House and Republican leaders to portray the bill as the product of Democratic partisanship appeared to have succeeded. The White House appears to be calculating that while the public is opposed to the war, it is also leery of Congress undermining the commander in chief.
But behind the heated debate yesterday, the standing ovations that greeted the most caustic Republican comments and the warnings issued over the consequences of the House bill, even top Republicans were showing signs that political pressure on them was growing to take a stand against their president.
Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.), the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, decried what he called "logrolling and political bribery" in the House bill. But in his next comment, he lauded the Senate's nonbinding benchmarks for the Iraqi government and language specifying withdrawal dates as goals. That alone is movement on the Republican side.
The outcome of the legislative battle is anything but clear. Starting on Monday, the Senate will take up its own $122 billion version of a war spending bill that would require troops to begin leaving Iraq within four months of passage and would set a nonbinding goal of March 31, 2008, for the removal of combat troops.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) vowed to defend that language yesterday as he praised the House bill as "legislation that maximizes our chances for success in Iraq and redeploys our troops so we can more effectively wage the war on terror."
Republican senators will move as early as Tuesday to strip the withdrawal timetable from the bill. Senate Democrats could muster only 48 votes earlier this month for a resolution calling for the same timeline. Reid spokesman Jim Manley said Democrats remain hopeful that they will win over a handful of Republicans for the 50 votes they need to preserve the withdrawal language.
If it remains, Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), would not say whether GOP senators would filibuster the war funding legislation or let Bush veto it.
Regardless of what the Senate passes, the real decisions will come behind closed doors, when House and Senate negotiators decide on the final bill to send to the president.
House leadership aides say Pelosi will demand that the final version include some deadline for troop withdrawals, and House members say she will have little room to maneuver. Many Democrats would view it as a betrayal if she compromised further, said Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.), a member of the antiwar Out of Iraq Caucus.
"It's a compromise now as it is, and I think it would be very difficult to achieve success with anything that is less of a directive to the administration," he said.
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.