WASHINGTON -- In the first official step by Congress to criticize President Bush's conduct of the war in Iraq, the House of Representatives approved a nonbinding resolution yesterday disapproving of his plan to send more U.S. troops to Baghdad.
Democratic leaders described the vote, which fell largely along party lines after four days of debate, as the start of a new effort by Congress to assume a stronger role in the management of hostilities - with an aim toward bringing them to a close.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who led the effort on behalf of her party's new majority on Capitol Hill, said passage of the measure signaled "a change in direction in Iraq that will end the fighting and bring our troops home safely and soon."
All but two Democrats voted in favor of measure, including the six from Maryland. Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland voted against it. Seventeen Republicans, including Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of Maryland's Eastern Shore, voted with the Democratic majority.
That number was significantly lower than some pre-vote predictions, which estimated that several dozen Republicans might take advantage of the symbolic vote to criticize their party's president amid widespread public opposition to the war.
Attention shifts to the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada planned a rare Saturday session for today on whether to take up the House resolution. The Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, vowed to block a debate, which would need the support of at least 11 Republicans to go forward.
House leaders, meanwhile, were considering additional measures that, they said, would limit Bush's ability to sustain an unpopular war that has killed more than 3,100 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis over nearly four years of fighting.
Democrats have said they will not cut funding for troops that already are deployed. But Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, the party's chief war critic, is preparing legislation that would tie future spending to strict standards for training and equipping troops before they can be sent into battle, and require a year's rest for returning units before they can be sent back.
Murtha, who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees military spending, says such controls would have the effect of limiting the number of new troops available for deployment.
Bush has acknowledged that Congress, with its budget authority, has the ability to limit his options in Iraq. But he has urged lawmakers not to assert it.
"What the president is insistent upon is that our forces have the funds they need and the flexibility required to continue to execute not only the Baghdad security plan but the way forward that's designed to secure the situation in Iraq," White House spokesman Tony Snow said yesterday. "And, therefore, anything that is going to tie the hands of military commanders and deny both the funds and flexibility they're going to need, he will take a dim view of."
The restrictions that Murtha describes are not expected to pass as easily as the measure that cleared the House yesterday. Members voted 246-182 to approve the 71-word resolution that expresses support for U.S. troops but opposition to Bush's plan to send 21,500 more of them to Iraq.
"Republicans may have lost the vote on this nonbinding resolution, but we won the debate," said the House Republican leader, John A. Boehner of Ohio. "Over the course of this week, the American people heard two very different messages from the House of Representatives: one from Democrats that destined the cause of freedom to certain failure, and one from Republicans that offered a compelling case on the disastrous consequences of anything short of victory."
The vote came at the end of nearly a week of debate, during which 392 of the 435 House members spoke from the floor of the chamber, according to House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland.
Democrats said Bush had mismanaged the war, citing military commanders who are skeptical that additional U.S. troops will improve conditions in Iraq. Democrats also said that earlier increases in troop strength had not achieved lasting success but had eased the pressure on Iraqi forces to take more responsibility for their nation's security.
"Let us be clear," said Hoyer. "We do not honor the courage and sacrifice of our troops when we continue to pursue a failing policy. Nor do we strengthen our national security."
Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said that he had "not heard anything, in classified briefings or unclassified briefings, that would lead me to believe that this so-called surge would work."
Republicans called the resolution a political stunt that would hurt the morale of U.S. troops while emboldening America's enemies. They described Iraq as a crucial front in a global war on terrorism and warned that a failed state there could become a base from which terrorists could strike the United States and its interests worldwide.
"There are serious consequences to our national security if we fail in Iraq," said Rep. Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican. "Cutting off funding, limiting military options or pushing for immediate withdrawal will only make our future more dangerous. It is time to stop the politics, stop the games, stop the finger-pointing and do what is best for America."
A hope and a fear
Maryland's Bartlett said he opposed the resolution, not because he believes deploying more troops would be helpful but out of concern that the House vote could send the wrong message to combatants on both sides of the war. "It is certainly my hope that the surge ... will help stabilize Iraq and permit the establishment of a democratic republic," he said. "My expectation is that the surge will be meaningless. I fear that it will simply place more of our brave young people in harm's way without any compensating benefit."
Lawmakers face a confrontation over funding for the war. Murtha was planning to write his restrictions into Bush's $93 billion supplemental budget request, which the House is due to take up shortly. Asked about that process after the vote yesterday, Pelosi said she would not discuss legislation that had not been written. "What we're saying today to the president is, we need a new direction," she said. "That new direction certainly will be reflected in the legislation. ... And it will say that we have benchmarks that we need."
Rep. Adam H. Putnam of Florida, chairman of the House Republican Conference, warned that Democrats would try to cut funding for the troops.
"It is clearly a back-door effort," Putnam said. "It doesn't matter how you wrap it up or how many bows you put on it. ... It has nothing to do with arming our troops, training our troops or equipping our troops as they prepare to go back into theater."