Rumors of reinstating the military draft, which have flourished for months in panicky e-mails, online chat rooms, college dorms and student newspapers, suddenly dominated the House floor yesterday in one of the strangest parliamentary maneuvers in memory. With even its sponsor voting against it, a bill to require young adults to perform military or civil service failed, 402 to 2.
The vote put an end to HR 163, but Democrats and Republicans signaled they will continue to accuse each other of contemplating a revival of conscription, at least through the presidential campaign's final month, and probably as long as U.S. troops are in Iraq.
For 18 months House Republican leaders ignored the bill, sponsored by liberal Democrats who complained that minorities and low-income Americans are doing a disproportionate share of the fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. In recent days, however, Republicans grew increasingly alarmed by sometimes vague, sometimes direct suggestions that President Bush has a secret plan to reinstate the draft if reelected.
Bush has tried to strangle the rumors, as when he told Iowa voters Monday, "We will not have a draft, so long as I am president of the United States." But his House GOP allies decided that was not enough. Yesterday they surprised Democrats by placing the long-neglected bill on that evening's "suspension calendar," a little-heralded device that traditionally contains nothing more controversial than renaming post offices or lauding volunteers.
The goal, Republicans said, was to show voters that only Democrats have made an official bid to renew the draft.
"After all the conspiracy talk and e-mails flying all over this country, especially the conspiracy talk we've heard lately from the [John F.] Kerry Democrats, we took a look around and found that the only plan to bring back the military draft, secret or not, was the Democrats,' " Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) told reporters. "We're going to bring it out there, and we're going to put a nail in that coffin."
Democrats refused to take the obvious bait. The bill's main sponsor, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), called a news conference to say he would vote against his bill and to denounce Republicans as cynics who use parliamentary rules for political manipulations rather than for debates of serious topics.
"It is so darn hypocritical for the Congress to come forward and put a [controversial] bill on the suspension calendar," Rangel said. "It's a shame that . . . this legislative body is being used as a political tool on the eve of elections."
Rangel and several co-sponsors said they introduced the bill primarily to raise awareness of who makes up most of the volunteer army and to stimulate debate about the administration's military and economic policies. The nation has "an indirect draft of minorities and the poor" -- people left out of Bush's tax cuts and struggling to find jobs, said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.).
GOP leaders said that in calling Rangel's bill to a vote, they were simply taking his proposal to restart the debate at face value, and putting people's minds at ease. Americans, said Republican floor manager John M. McHugh (N.Y.), "have been whipped into a frenzy by this controversy."
Republicans first had to obtain a parliamentary ruling letting them bring up a bill that not a soul would claim to support.
"That's the first time ever, probably, in the history of the United States" a measure came to the floor in such a fashion, said Rep. Ike Skelton (Mo.), ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. His panel never held a hearing on the bill, he noted, and to vote on it "is nothing more than a cynical election-year political ploy."
Voting for the measure were Reps. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), who long has argued the United States needs more troops in Iraq, and Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.), a 32-year House veteran.
Top Democrats said the vote will not end worries of Bush's intentions. "Anyone who says the policies of this administration will lead to a draft is absolutely correct," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said.
Indeed, with no end to the war in Iraq in sight and military personnel stretched thin, many young Americans have ignored Bush's and Kerry's statements that no military draft is in the works. Some parents are worried by the prospect that, pressured by the war on terrorism, Bush might attempt to renew conscription. In 1973, the Pentagon altered the system, developing an all-volunteer force with combat support provided by the National Guard and Reserves, and a standby draft.
In April, American University's student newspaper, the Eagle, ran a story headlined "Draft Issue Raises Questions." It said reported rumors of the draft returning "has some AU students worried."
Georgetown University junior Timothy D'Arduini, treasurer of the Georgetown College Democrats, calls talk of a new draft "very ominous."
In early September, the Web site of Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism (www.niemanwatchdog.org), asked Internet users which questions Bush and Kerry should be asked in the first presidential debate. Among the top 10 responses was: "Given that this war on terrorism has gone on for several years, and will continue into the future, do either of you expect to bring back the draft?"
In late August, the Alliance for Security (AFS), a program of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundations, released the results of a survey of draft-age Americans. It found that 52 percent said if a draft were reinstated they would actively seek deferment or refuse to serve. Forty-three percent said they would serve if called; 40 percent of parents said they would not want their children to serve or would want their child to seek deferment.
Laurie Rivlin Heller, of Mothers United to Stop the Draft, called yesterday's House vote "a public relations stunt." The question isn't whether there will be a draft next year, she said, but in two or even five years.
"People doing the analysis of boots on the ground, including the generals, know there is a shortage and will continue to be a shortage," she said. "So how are they going to fill the need? When push comes to shove, they are going to fill it with our children."