WASHINGTON – The House on Friday overwhelmingly rejected calls for an immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq, a vote engineered by Republicans that was intended to fail. Democrats derided the vote as a political stunt.
"Our troops have become the enemy. We need to change direction in Iraq," said Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, a Democratic hawk whose call a day earlier for pulling out troops sparked a nasty, personal debate over the war.
The House voted 403-3 to reject a nonbinding resolution offered by the GOP calling for the military to pull out of Iraq.
"We want to make sure that we support our troops that are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. We will not retreat," Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said as the Republican leadership pushed the issue to a vote over the protest of Democrats.
Like most Democrats, Murtha voted against the measure. Murtha said it was not the thoughtful approach he said he had suggested to bring the troops safely home in six months.
It was the second time in less than a week that President Bush's Iraq policy stirred heated debate in Congress. On Tuesday, the Senate defeated a Democratic push for Bush to lay out a timetable for withdrawal. Instead, it adopted a statement that 2006 should be a year of significant transition in Iraq.
"Congress in strong, bipartisan fashion rejected the call to cut and run," press secretary Scott McClellan, traveling with Bush in Asia, said a statement. Earlier Friday, Bush had called an immediate troop withdrawal "a recipe for disaster."
Murtha, a Marine veteran decorated for combat service in Vietnam, issued his call for a troop withdrawal at a news conference on Thursday. In little more than 24 hours, Hastert and Republicans decided to put the question to the House.
Republicans hoped to place Democrats in an unappealing position — either supporting a withdrawal that critics said would be precipitous or opposing it and angering voters who want an end to the conflict. They also hoped the vote could restore GOP momentum on an issue — the war — that has seen plummeting public support in recent weeks.
Democrats said it was a sham and quickly decided to vote against the resolution in an attempt to drain it of significance.
At one point in the emotional debate, Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, told of a phone call she received from a Marine colonel.
"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," Schmidt said. Murtha is a 37-year Marine veteran.
Democrats booed and shouted her down — causing the House to come to a standstill.
Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., charged across the chamber's center aisle screaming that Republicans were making uncalled-for personal attacks. "You guys are pathetic! Pathetic!" yelled Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass.
Democrats gave Murtha a standing ovation as he entered the chamber and took his customary corner seat.
Murtha has proposed his own resolution that would force the president to withdraw the nearly 160,000 troops in Iraq "at the earliest practicable date." It would establish a quick-reaction force and a nearby presence of Marines in the region. It also said the U.S. must pursue stability in Iraq through diplomacy.
The Republican alternative simply said: "It is the sense of the House of Representatives that the deployment of United States forces in Iraq be terminated immediately."
"This is a personal attack on one of the best members, one of the most respected members of this House and it is outrageous," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, however, said the resolution vote was not a stunt. "This is not an attack on an individual. This is a legitimate question."
A growing number of House members and senators, looking ahead to off-year elections next November, are publicly worrying about a quagmire in Iraq. They have been staking out new positions on a war that is increasingly unpopular with the American public, has resulted in more than 2,000 U.S. military deaths and has cost more than $200 billion.
Three Democrats, Jose Serrano of New York, Robert Wexler of Florida and Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, voted for withdrawal. Six voted present: Reps. Jim McDermott of Washington, Jerrold Nadler of New York, Maurice Hinchey of New York, Michael Capuano of Massachusetts, Major Owens of New York and William Lacy Clay of Missouri.