WASHINGTON -- Four and a half years after Congress authorized the U.S. invasion of Iraq, House Democrats challenged White House war policy yesterday with a lengthy debate of a brief resolution opposing President Bush's policy of sending more troops.
"In a few days, in fewer than 100 words, we will take our country in a new direction in Iraq," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said on the House floor as she kicked off the debate.
Pelosi and others in the Democratic majority have promised that their nonbinding resolution will be just the first step in an aggressive legislative drive to end the war.
Republicans - though powerless as the minority to stop the measure - heaped scorn on what they said was a meaningless gesture that would lead to defeat in Iraq while emboldening America's terrorist foes.
"If we leave, they'll just follow us home. It's as simple as that," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican.
The first House debate of the war since Democrats assumed power last month has focused attention on how far Congress will go to try to change the course of the unpopular conflict.
This week's much anticipated debate will have no direct impact on Bush's deployment of an additional 21,500 troops in Iraq in what his administration has billed as a last effort to head off civil war there.
The short, nonbinding resolution championed by Democratic leaders "disapproves" of the White House plan even as it affirms Congress' support for U.S. forces in Iraq. Bush has said he will ignore both the debate and the resolution.
The resolution reads:
"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 and ... Congress disapproves of the decision of President George W. Bush announced on Jan. 10, 2007 to deploy more than 20,000 additional United States combat troops to Iraq."
The resolution is being sponsored by a trio of legislators - Rep. Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat who leads the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, and Rep. Walter B. Jones, a North Carolina Republican.
Each of the 434 members of the House has been allotted five minutes to speak - about 26 hours altogether. The debate is expected to end tomorrow or Friday, with the vote on Friday.
Yesterday, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, was the first of the Maryland delegation to speak.
"In the absence of a clear and meaningful strategy for success, it is time to extricate our troops out of this civil war and redeploy them out of the occupation of Iraq," said Cummings, a supporter of the resolution who recently joined the House Armed Services Committee.
Other members of the Maryland delegation are scheduled to speak on the resolution today and tomorrow. Cummings is expected to outline Democratic objections to the Iraq war at a private White House meeting tomorrow between Bush and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, according to Cummings' office.
Of keen interest to political observers is how many Republicans will cross over to vote for the resolution.
Democrats phrased the resolution simply - taking care to include support for the troops - in an effort to win as much GOP support as possible. House GOP leader Boehner was asked Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press whether he thought up to one-third of the GOP's 202 members would defect.
"I don't think we'll lose that many," he said.
Republican supporters of the administration countered but were urged to do so carefully.
"If we let Democrats force us into a debate on the surge [in troops] or the current situation in Iraq, we lose," Reps. John Shadegg of Arizona and Peter Hoekstra of Michigan said in a letter to fellow Republicans.
Republicans had sought to offer an alternative measure, drafted by Rep. Sam Johnson, a Texas Republican, that would have prohibited Congress from cutting off funds for the troops. Johnson was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, and Boehner teared up before reporters as he listened to him describe his reaction at the time when he learned of anti-war protests back in the United States.
But Democrats said Republicans would not be allowed a vote on their measure, and the House voted, 227-197, to uphold the rejection.
Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat from Southern Maryland, said Democrats have no intention of cutting off funds for troops in the field. "There will be no de-funding which will cause any risk to the troops," he told a news conference.
Numerous Democrats have expressed a determination to withdraw combat forces from Iraq, but they also say they would do so in a way that did not expose the troops to additional danger.
Noam N. Levy writes for the Los Angeles Times. Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown and the Associated Press contributed to this article.
POINTS OF VIEW -- IRAQ WAR
Views on the war resolution being debated in the U.S. House of Representatives
A first move for changing the course of the war
No more "blank checks" for President Bush on Iraq
Makes clear to Iraq that the U.S. will not be there indefinitely
Will undermine the president's policies
Will embolden terrorists
Will give Iran "free access" to the Middle East