Differences over policy on the Iraq war ignited an explosion of angry words and personal insults on the House floor yesterday when the chamber's newest member suggested that a decorated war veteran was a coward for calling for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.
As Democrats physically restrained one colleague, who appeared as if he might lose control of himself as he rushed across the aisle to confront Republicans with a jabbing finger, they accused Republicans of playing political games with the war.
GOP leaders hastily scheduled a vote on a measure to require the Bush administration to bring the troops home now, an idea proposed Thursday by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.). The Republican-proposed measure was rejected 403 to 3, a result that surprised no one.
The idea was to force Democrats to go on the record on a proposal that the administration says would be equivalent to surrender. Recognizing a political trap, most Democrats -- including Murtha -- said from the start they would vote no.
But the maneuvering exposed the chamber's raw partisan divisions and prompted a tumultuous scene, which Capitol Hill veterans called among the wildest and most emotional they had ever witnessed.
Though even many Democrats think Murtha's immediate withdrawal plan is impractical, it struck a chord in a party where frustration with the war and the Bush administration's open-ended commitment is mounting fast. Murtha galvanized the debate as few others could have. He is a 33-year House veteran and former Marine colonel who received medals for his wounds and valor in Vietnam, and he has traditionally been a leading Democratic hawk and advocate of military spending.
Murtha's resolution included language the Republicans wanted to avoid, such as "the American people have not been shown clear, measurable progress" toward stability in Iraq. It also said troops should be withdrawn "at the earliest practicable date," although Murtha said in statements and interviews Thursday that the drawdown should begin now.
Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) drafted a simpler resolution calling for an immediate withdrawal of troops, saying it was a fair interpretation of Murtha's intent. Members were heatedly debating a procedural rule concerning the Hunter resolution when Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) was recognized at 5:20 p.m. Schmidt won a special election in August, defeating Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett, and is so new to Congress that some colleagues do not know her name.
She told colleagues that "a few minutes ago I received a call from Colonel Danny Bubp," an Ohio legislator and Marine Corps Reserve officer. "He asked me to send Congress a message: Stay the course. He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message: that cowards cut and run, Marines never do."
Dozens of Democrats erupted at once, pointing angrily at Schmidt and shouting repeatedly, "Take her words down" -- the House term for retracting a statement. For a moment Schmidt tried to keep speaking, but the uproar continued and several GOP colleagues surrounded her as she sat down, looking slightly dazed. Presiding officer Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) gaveled in vain for order as Democrats continued shouting for Schmidt to take back her words. Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) yelled "You guys are pathetic!" from the far end of the Democratic section to the GOP side.
Just as matters seemed to calm a bit, Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) suddenly charged across the aisle to the GOP seats, jabbing his finger furiously at a small group of GOP members and shouting, "Say Murtha's name!" Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), who had led the chants for striking Schmidt's comments, gently guided Ford by the arm back to the minority party's side.
At 5:31, when order was finally restored, Schmidt rose again and said softly, "My words were not directed at any member of the House." She asked that they "be withdrawn" from the record.
As the House temporarily moved to other matters, a calm Ford said in an interview that he confronted the Republicans because he was angry that they were using a ploy to avoid "a real debate" about the war. "I said, 'If you believe it's about Murtha, then talk about Murtha, don't hide behind a resolution,' " Ford said.
It was past 10 p.m. when Murtha addressed a relatively subdued House. Hunter's resolution "is not what I envisioned" because it avoids a broader debate of the war, which "is not going as advertised," Murtha said. "The American people are way ahead of us" in wanting a strategy to bring the troops home, he added. "It's easy to sit in your air-conditioned offices and send them into battle."
But Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Tex.), who spent seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said U.S. forces in Iraq "need our full support." He added: "They need to have full faith that a few naysayers in Washington won't cut and run and leave them high and dry."
Those voting yes on the resolution were Democrats Jose E. Serrano (N.Y.), Robert Wexler (Fla.) and Cynthia McKinney (Ga.). Six other Democrats -- none of them from Maryland or Virginia -- voted "present."
Top Democrats attacked the GOP tactic. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the Republicans "engaged in an act of deception that undermines any shred of dignity that might be left in this Republican Congress." She called Hunter's resolution "a political stunt" and "a disservice to our country and to our men and women in uniform."
Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said that the GOP resolution was meant to prevent a serious debate on the war's prosecution, and that he lacked the words "to express the magnitude of my contempt with which I view this shabby, petty political maneuver."
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.