WASHINGTON – For the second time in as many months, the House rejected calls for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq with a vote Friday that Democrats said was politically driven and designed by Republicans to limit debate on the war.
In a 279-109 vote, the GOP-controlled House approved a resolution saying the chamber is committed "to achieving victory in Iraq" and that setting an "artificial timetable" would be "fundamentally inconsistent with achieving victory."
Democrats voted against the resolution by a roughly two-to-one margin, underlining splits within the party over alternatives to President Bush's Iraq war policies. Thirty-four of them voted "present," a rarely used option that signals neither support nor opposition.
Democrats called the GOP resolution a political stunt, and offered an alternative statement simply congratulating Iraqis for holding three successful elections this year but not mentioning withdrawal or victory. Republicans rejected it.
Instead, the House GOP maneuvered for its own resolution, as Democratic calls for an immediate or eventual troop pullout intensified in the weeks since prominent a Democratic hawk, Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, said it was time for U.S. troops to start coming home. Some Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, have lined up behind him.
Murtha sent his fellow Democrats a letter objecting to the GOP resolution. "It calls for 'complete victory' which does not define victory, is open-ended, and therefore means that our troops could be there for ten or fifteen years," Murtha said.
But Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., said Congress needed to make a statement that it was committed to winning. "This is a global war on terror, and if we don't win the battle in Iraq, where else might we win it or, where else might we have to fight it," he said.
The minority party also complained that Republicans were intentionally limiting debate on Iraq by scheduling a vote as lawmakers are under pressure to finish their work so they can adjourn for the year. Several dozen Democrats — some wearing "Debate Iraq" buttons — filed to the floor to "request an open debate" on the war.
The GOP resolution "honors the tremendous sacrifices" of U.S. forces and praises Iraqis for voting in parliamentary elections Thursday. It says U.S. forces would be required in Iraq "only until Iraqi forces can stand up so our forces can stand down, and no longer than is required for that purpose."
It says that "setting an artificial timetable for the withdrawal of United States Armed Forces from Iraq, or immediately terminating their deployment in Iraq and redeploying them elsewhere in the region, is fundamentally inconsistent with achieving victory in Iraq."
"What is victory? Nobody has defined what victory is," Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., objected.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said the resolution makes a strong statement: "Failure is not a part of the American nature nor of our moral fiber."
By putting the resolution to a vote, Republican leaders forced Democrats to make a choice: either break ranks with their party and support the GOP resolution, or oppose it and open themselves to criticism, ahead of a congressional election year in which Iraq will be a focus, that they had rejected the notion of victory in Iraq.
House Republicans forced a vote last month rejecting the immediate pullout of U.S. forces just before adjourning for Thanksgiving break as they sought to kill momentum that was building behind Murtha's call for withdrawal.
Democrats called the quick vote a political ploy that prevented thoughtful debate on Murtha's proposal — and almost all voted against withdrawal in what they said was a protest after a nasty and personal debate.
By comparison, Friday's discussion was far more tempered.