WASHINGTON – In the strongest challenge yet to President Bush over the war in Iraq, the Democrat-controlled House narrowly passed a war spending bill on Friday that would require the withdrawal of most U.S. forces by late next summer.
The measure passed, 218 to 212, on a largely party-line vote, drawing support from just two Republicans after an emotional debate. House members who fought in Vietnam and Iraq delivered some of the most impassioned speeches – both for and against the measure.
Hours after the vote, Bush appeared before television cameras at the White House to denounce the legislation, which he has threatened to veto. He accused Democrats of “an act of political theater” by passing a bill that has “no chance of becoming law and brings us no closer to getting our troops the resources they need to do their job.”
In what is emerging as a political game of chicken with the White House, the Senate begins debate Monday on its version of the bill, which would require troops to start pulling out of Iraq within 120 days of passage and would set March 31, 2008, as a “goal” for completing the withdrawal.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the bills reflect “what the American people asked for in November – redeploying our troops out of Iraq and refocusing our resources to more effectively fight the war on terror.”
But the bid to force the redeployment of U.S. troops faces uncertain prospects in the narrowly divided Senate, where Republicans have so far stymied Democratic efforts to dictate military strategy.
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, said the leader was “hopeful that he’ll have the votes.” But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., joined at a news conference by Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., promised, “We will defeat this on the floor of the Senate.”
The $124.3 billion House war spending bill provides much of the money that Bush has sought for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Democrats attached a requirement that U.S. troops leave Iraq by the end of August 2008 – or sooner if the Iraq government fails to meet a series of goals.
During Friday’s debate, Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., a Vietnam veteran who has become one of his party’s leading anti-war voices, recalled advice he said his great-grandmother gave him when he was a child.
“You’re on this Earth to make a difference,” Murtha said she told him. His voice quavering, he continued: “We’re going to make a difference with this bill. We’re going to bring those troops home.”
Following Murtha, Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., a former Army captain and the only Iraq combat veteran in Congress, turned to Republicans and said: “I want to ask you the same questions that my gunner asked me when I was leading a convoy up and down Ambush Alley one day. He said, ‘Sir, what are we doing over here? What’s our mission? When are these Iraqis going to come off the sidelines and fight for their own country?’
“To my colleagues across the aisle,” he continued, “your taunts about supporting our troops ring hollow if you are still unable to answer those questions now four years later.”
Republicans countered that a withdrawal would force a defeat in Iraq and undermine the reputation of the United States around the world.
“Think for a moment what signal this sends to our enemies,” House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said. “You can take on the United States, you can push them to the edge, and at the end of the day, they’ll just go home.”
Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, a former Air Force pilot and Vietnam POW, closed the debate for the Republican side. “How many of you have ever asked your constituents, ‘Do you want to lose in Iraq?’ I think if you asked that question. … Americans will whole-heartedly say no. We have smart, strong men and women serving in Iraq and they need our help. They need the full support of their country and their Congress.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has warned that failure to pass the emergency spending measure in the next three weeks could jeopardize the military’s ability to deploy enough troops to Iraq.
Democratic lawmakers have argued that the timelines are necessary to force Iraqi leaders to begin taking responsibility for their own security.
The bill also contains readiness conditions that require the president to ensure troops have adequate training, equipment and rest before being sent to Iraq, or to explain publicly why he is disregarding those requirements.
In addition to money to run the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the bill contains billions of dollars in other spending, including money for military and veterans health care, mine-resistant combat vehicles, Gulf Coast reconstruction, wildfire suppression and disaster aid to farmers, including California’s spinach growers.
The vote was a victory for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who brought down the gavel with a smile to close the roll call. In the toughest test of her leadership, Pelosi and her lieutenants spent days working to bring together the party’s conservative and liberal members to support the measure.
After the Senate passes its bill, representatives of both chambers will meet to craft a single bill. The president has promised to veto any bill that contains timelines, and Democrats lack the two-thirds vote to override a veto.
“This is the highest-stakes game of poker the capital has seen in a very long time,” said Don Kettl, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist. “The Democrats are boxed in. They’ve successfully made Iraq into a wedge issue to separate Bush from the public. But having identified the war as the driving issue, they face the challenge of getting action or facing a charge that they’re just posturing.”
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, was among 14 Democrats who joined 198 Republicans voting against the measure. Reps. Barbara Lee, Maxine Waters, Diane Watson and Lynn Woolsey, all of California, broke from the rest of the state’s Democrats and voted against the measure on grounds that it didn’t go far enough to end U.S. involvement in Iraq.