WASHINGTON – Breaking ranks, a small band of House Republicans declared their opposition to a troop buildup in Iraq on Wednesday, and President Bush appeared resigned to passage of a nonbinding measure disapproving of his decision.
"I'm going to make it very clear to the members of Congress, starting now, that they need to fund our troops," the president said, looking past this week's debate toward congressional action next month on his request for nearly $100 billion for the military.
Bush spoke at a White House news conference timed — coincidentally or not — for the hour that Republican critics of his war policies took their turn in a marathon debate on the House floor.
"I am personally very high on President Bush, but on the matter of troop escalation, I am not in agreement," said Republican Rep. Howard Coble of North Carolina.
"I insist that we do not maintain an eternal presence in Iraq, if for no other reason than the cost to the taxpayers, which has been astronomically unbelievable," he said. He also noted the war has cost more than 3,100 U.S. troops their lives.
Coble was one of fewer than a dozen Republicans to swing behind the measure. It declares that Congress "disapproves of the decision of President George W. Bush ... to deploy more than 20,000 additional United States combat troops to Iraq."
The 95-word measure adds that "Congress and the American people will continue to support and protect the members of the United States armed forces who are serving or who have served bravely and honorably in Iraq."
By early evening, only one Democrat, Rep. Jim Marshall of Georgia, had announced he would vote in opposition.
Approval is expected on Friday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has announced plans to try for a vote on an identical bill in the next few weeks. Prospects there are uncertain because Republicans have said they will also demand a vote on an alternative measure that says Congress should neither cut nor eliminate funds for troops in the field.
Democrats took control of Congress after elections last fall that were shaped in large measure by public opposition to the war. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has described the nonbinding measure as the first step in a longer campaign to end U.S. participation in the nearly four-year-old conflict.
Several Democrats have said they favor cutting off money as a way to accomplish that, and Bush was eager to lay down a marker on that issue.
"They have every right to express their opinion, and it is a nonbinding resolution," he said of the measure before the House. But looking ahead, he added that Congress soon "is going to be able to vote on a piece of legislation that is binding, a bill providing emergency funding for our troops. ... We have a responsibility , all of us here in Washington, to make sure that our men and women in uniform have the resources and flexibility they need to prevail."
Pelosi and Reid sent Bush a letter citing reports the Army lacks enough advanced armored kits to protect all Humvees from roadside bombs. "In addition, we understand that existing shortages of trucks and other crucial equipment such as jamming devices, radios and other gear will only be exacerbated by the surge," they wrote.
The lawmakers raised the issue later with the president at a White House meeting. One aide suggested afterward that Bush's spending request could be rewritten to require that any troops deployed to Iraq be fully equipped.
Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who heads a House subcommittee that controls defense spending, has said he intends to require that any units headed to Iraq meet the Army's highest readiness level. Congress also could try to slow the deployment of additional troops by curtailing the Pentagon's practice of extending the duty tours of personnel who have reached the end of their scheduled time in the war zone.
Republican leaders predict that as many as two dozen or so GOP member could vote for the nonbinding repudiation of the troop increase. Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina led the GOP rebels during debate on the House floor.
Jones, a seventh-term lawmaker whose district includes the Marines' Camp Lejeune, said he had spoken out four years ago against the plan to invade Iraq. "I now regret that I did not more openly challenge those who were determined to invade a country whose actions were peripheral to the real threat, Al Qaeda," he said.
"For young men and women who are brave enough to go into Iraq and Afghanistan, then we as members of Congress must be brave enough and informed to start a dialogue in Damascus, in Tehran, in the entire region to hasten peace," said Rep. Wayne Gilchrist, R-Md., calling for a diplomatic effort along the lines recommended by the Iraq Study Group that recently issued a gloomy report on the state of affairs in Iraq.
"I will support this resolution because I believe that the surge will be unsuccessful without a comprehensive, diplomatic strategy to engage the international community and turn responsibility over to the Iraqi government," added Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del.
In a criticism of House Democratic leaders, though, Castle quickly added he was disappointed they had denied lawmakers a chance to vote on an alternative measure drafted by Republicans.
The GOP leadership had sought a vote on a measure opposing any efforts to cut off money for the war. Democratic leaders initially said they would allow them to proceed. They changed their minds, though, in what Republicans said was an attempt to hide a deep divide on the money issue among Democrats.
Democrats did not deny that would have been the case. But they said Republicans will be able to put all lawmakers on record on the issue when the $100 billion military spending bill comes to the House in March.
Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., provoked a sharp response from Democrats when she said she opposes the increase in troops but would not support the measure criticizing it. She said that while it pledges to protect the troops in Iraq and those who have gone, it makes no mention of the thousands yet to be deployed.
"What about the five brigades of young Americans who are now preparing their families and packing their gear to deploy? What about them? What are you saying to them? Will we buy body armor for them? Will we have armored Humvees for them?" she asked.
Wilson's comments brought Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., to the House chamber for a hurried rebuttal.
"If the commander in chief has sent them there, we will support them," he said.