WASHINGTON – A sharply divided House voted Friday to order President Bush to bring combat troops home from Iraq next year, a victory for Democrats in an epic war-powers struggle and Congress’ boldest challenge yet to the administration’s policy.
Ignoring a White House veto threat, lawmakers voted 218-212, mostly along party lines, for a binding war spending bill requiring that combat operations cease before September 2008, or earlier if the Iraqi government does not meet certain requirements. Democrats said it was time to heed the mandate of their election sweep last November, which gave them control of Congress.
”The American people have lost faith in the president’s conduct of this war,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. ”The American people see the reality of the war, the president does not.”
The vote, echoing clashes between lawmakers and the White House over the Vietnam War four decades ago, pushed the Democratic-led Congress a step closer to a constitutional collision with the wartime commander in chief. Bush has insisted that lawmakers allow more time for his strategy of sending nearly 30,000 additional troops to Iraq to work.
The roll call also marked a triumph for Pelosi., who labored in recent days to bring together a Democratic caucus deeply divided over the war. Some of the party’s more liberal members voted against the bill because they said it would not end the war immediately, while more conservative Democrats said they were reluctant to take away flexibility from generals in the field.
Republicans were almost completely unified in their fight against the bill, which they said was tantamount to admitting failure in Iraq.
”The stakes in Iraq are too high and the sacrifices made by our military personnel and their families too great to be content with anything but success,” said Republican Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
Voting for the bill were 216 Democrats and two Republicans — Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland and Walter Jones of North Carolina. Of the 212 members who opposed the bill, 198 were Republicans and 14 were Democrats.
The bill marks the first time Congress has used its budget power to try to end the war, now in its fifth year, by attaching the withdrawal requirements to a bill providing $124 billion to finance military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for the rest of this year.
Excluding the funds in the House-passed bill, Congress has so far provided more than $500 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including about $350 billion for Iraq alone, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. More than 3,200 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since war began in March 2003.
Across the Capitol, the Senate planned to debate as early as Monday legislation that also calls for a troop withdrawal — and has also drawn a Bush veto threat.
That $122 billion measure would require that Bush begin bringing home an unspecified number of troops within four months with the goal of getting all combat troops out by March 31, 2008. Unlike the House bill’s 2008 date, the Senate deadline is not a firm requirement.
While Friday’s House vote represented Democrats’ latest ratcheting up of political pressure on Bush, they still face long odds of ultimately being able to force a troop withdrawal.
In the Senate, Democratic leaders will need 60 votes to prevail — a tall order because they will need about a dozen Republicans to join them.
And should lawmakers send Bush a compromise House-Senate measure, both chambers would need two-thirds majorities to override him — margins that neither seems likely to be able to muster.
In Friday’s House debate, Democrats said it was time for them to begin influencing the war’s path.
”The American public expects, the Congress of the United States, to do something,” said Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. ”Not simply to say ‘yes’ to failed policies, but to on their behalf, speak out and try to take us in a new direction.”
”What we’re trying to do in this legislation is force the Iraqis to fight their own war,” said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who had helped write the bill.
With Democrats holding 233 seats and Republicans with 201, Democrats were able to afford only 15 ”no” votes. Accordingly, Pelosi, and her leadership team spent days trying to convince members that the bill was Congress’ best chance of forcing Bush to change course — an argument that was aided when they added more than $20 billion in domestic spending in an effort to lure votes.
They got a breakthrough Thursday when four of the bill’s most consistent critics said they would not stand in its way. California Democrats Lynn Woolsey, Diane Watson, Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters said they would help round up support for the bill despite their intention to personally vote against it because it would not end the war immediately.
”Despite my steadfast opposition, I have told the speaker that I will work with her to obtain the needed votes to pass the supplemental, but that in the end I must vote my conscience,” said Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif.
The Iraq deadline created an unusual dynamic in the sharply partisan Congress. Bush loyalists teamed up with some anti-war liberals in opposing the measure. Conservatives said a firm deadline for the war would tie the hands of military commanders and embolden insurgents after the U.S. left Iraq, whereas many liberals said the bill would continue to bankroll an immoral war for more than a year.
”If you want peace, stop funding this war,” said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio.
”Approval of it means we vote to abandon Iraq at an arbitrary time no matter the situation, said Republican Rep. Ted Poe. It’s also ”loaded with squealing pork that has nothing to do with our troops or the war,” added Poe, R-Texas, referring to the billions of dollars added to the bill to fund domestic programs and attract votes.
But members said Pelosi was able to convince liberal members of her caucus that the legislation was their best shot at challenging Bush on the war even if it fails to become law.