WASHINGTON – Republicans seeking to defend President Bush's troop buildup in Iraq tapped military veterans among their own ranks as floor debate leaders Thursday as Democrats relished likely victory in their fight for a resolution opposing Bush's policy.
Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, took the lead among GOP speakers on the third day of debate on a resolution disapproving the addition of 21,500 U.S. troops to the fight. He was joined by other Vietnam War veterans, such as Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., in saying such opposition from Washington sends a signal of retreat in the war on terrorism.
But it appeared certain that Democrats, now took control of Congress last fall in no small part because of growing public disenchantment with the war, would carry the day in approving the resolution when a vote takes place on Friday. On Wednesday, a small group of House Republicans expressed their disagreement with the president's plan.
The resolution is nonbinding, but Democrats already are turning to the more consequential debate next month over Bush's request for nearly $100 billion more for the war, a request that promises to become a new battleground over his Iraq policy.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said the Democratic resolution was the first step in a longer campaign to end U.S. participation in the nearly four-year-old conflict.
In a letter to the president on Wednesday, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said, "thousands of the new troops" being sent into Iraq "will apparently not have the armor and equipment they need to perform the mission and reduce the likelihood of casualties."
Demanding that troops meet certain requirements before being sent into harms' way was an idea initiated by Rep. Jack Murtha, the top Democrat on the House committee that oversees military spending.
Murtha, a war veteran who advocates pulling troops out of Iraq, has said he wants to forbid the Pentagon from sending additional troops "unless they have adequate training and unless they have adequate equipment."
Murtha, D-Pa., said he believes the Army may have no units that can meet those standards, meaning Bush's attempt to send more troops to Iraq would be checked. 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.
As the House debated the Democratic resolution for a second day Wednesday, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker said protective gear for troops in Iraq was not a problem.
"Obviously, we are not going to put any force into theater that isn't properly trained and equipped," Schoomaker said.
Bush has asked for $93 billion in additional spending to finish paying for the war through Sept. 30, and Democrats could rewrite the legislation to require that troops sent to Iraq be fully equipped.
Supporting the troops, "means giving them the equipment they need, whether you agree with the mission that they are on or not," Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters after meeting with Bush at the White House.
Pelosi's remarks came as Bush shrugged off Democrats' attempt to pass a resolution declaring congressional opposition to the troop buildup and he turned his sights on the $93 billion spending request.
"I'm going to make it very clear to the members of Congress starting now," Bush told a news conference. "They need to fund our troops, and they need to make sure we have the flexibility necessary to get the job done."
Democrats took control of Congress after elections last fall that were shaped in large measure by public opposition to the war, which has cost the lives of more than 3,000 U.S. troops.
The House was to continue debating the measure Thursday, with a vote Friday, when it was expected to pass.
The resolution picked up steam Wednesday after more than a half a dozen House Republicans said they would vote for it.
Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., said he approached his decision "with a great deal of angst and humility," but ultimately could not stand behind the president's plan.
"I have listened to what our most well-respected four-star generals have to say about this matter," he said. And many "said that sending more troops into Baghdad is not the answer."
Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., announced he would oppose the Democratic resolution. While Marshall is concerned that Bush's Iraq strategy won't work, the Vietnam War veteran said he was gravely concerned about the impact it would have on troop morale.
Reid has announced plans to try for a vote in the Senate on an identical bill in the next few weeks. Prospects there are uncertain because Republican leaders have said they will demand a vote on an alternative measure promising not to cut funds for troops in the field.
Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who do not support sending more troops to Iraq, said Wednesday they would oppose adjourning for next week's recess until the Senate is able to debate the issue.