WASHINGTON -- Even after years of criticizing the conduct of the war in Iraq, and months urging President Bush to pursue diplomacy in the region, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest found it no easy decision to demand a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
"This took a long time -- many, many conversations -- with people in and out of the government," said the Eastern Shore Republican, one of only two GOP members to join House Democrats yesterday in ordering President Bush to pull combat troops out of Iraq by September of next year. The measure came in a $124 billion war spending bill.
Gilchrest, a former high school history teacher, has made several trips to the Middle East. He described conversations with Americans and Iraqis, and hours reading about the region, its history and politics.
"Nothing like this boils down to a short statement," he continued. "But we have General [David] Petraeus, and American soldiers, who are extraordinarily competent, implementing a flawed policy."
With Gilchrest crossing party lines, support in the Maryland delegation for a timetable is now bipartisan, and nearly unanimous. Seven of the state's eight House members voted for the measure, with its benchmarks for progress and deadlines for withdrawal.
"Today, for the first time since President Bush gave the orders that instigated war in Iraq, the United States House of Representatives embraced its constitutional responsibility and refused to issue yet another blank check for the president's failing policy," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat, said in a statement. "Instead, we voted to change direction, demanding that our troops be protected and insisting that the Iraqis be held accountable for making progress."
Democratic Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes, Chris Van Hollen and Albert R. Wynn joined Gilchrest and Hoyer in voting for the bill. Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett voted against it.
"I have long argued that a date certain for withdrawal of American troops will do more harm than good," Bartlett, of Western Maryland, said in a statement. He said the expected confrontation with Bush, who has vowed to veto the bill, could delay needed funding for troops in harm's way, and expressed frustration that nearly one-fifth of the spending authorized by the bill is unrelated to national defense.
The 218-212 vote followed a week of arm-twisting by Democratic leaders working to unify a fractured caucus. Some conservatives in the party objected to setting a timetable for withdrawal; some liberals said they would not approve any funding for the war.
One focus of the Democratic whip operation was Rep. Albert R. Wynn, the Prince George's County Democrat seen as moving to the left after a tough primary challenge last fall. Wynn had been spared by the Maryland activists who have been occupying delegation members' offices and demanding that they stop approving funds for the war. Ultimately, he voted for the bill.
"Having spoken with Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi, I believe that this is the best bill the House can successfully pass that will end the war and bring our troops home from Iraq," he said before the vote. "This is not the bill that many of us want, [but] it's the best bill we are likely to get."
At the other end of the spectrum, Ruppersberger had no problem authorizing more money for the war but was reluctant to set a timetable for withdrawing troops. But he dropped his objections, he said, because he also thought the bill was the best the Democrats could pass. Yesterday, the Baltimore County Democrat was working the House floor, in his hand a list of members who were still undecided, looking to shore up support.
"We have major issues out there: the war against terror. And we don't need to have our men and women killed and maimed every day being in the middle of a civil war between Sunni and Shia," said Ruppersberger.
At a town hall meeting last week in Baltimore, Cummings was challenged by antiwar activists to vote against funding the war. A member of the House Armed Services Committee, he told them that approach had no chance of gaining passage.
"When we're dealing with a stubborn president like President Bush, the troops are going to be there," the Baltimore Democrat said yesterday. "So then the question becomes, how do you make sure that you protect them? They've got to have equipment. They need to be rested. And they've got to be trained."
Cummings, who voted in 2002 against giving Bush the authority to use military force in Iraq, called benchmarks and timelines a more effective approach to ending the war. If the bill had failed, he said, Democrats would have faced pressure to come up with a "clean" bill, free of such conditions.
"We do not have the right to remain silent on this issue," he said. "I think we have spoken for the American people."
Rep. John Sarbanes said the vote would continue to "ratchet up the pressure" on Bush to change course in Iraq.
"What this vote does now is say to him we've had enough of your policy," the Baltimore County Democrat said. "There's a new kid in town, the new kid is the Democratic Congress, and they're going to call you to account. It's a totally new dynamic in the discussion on Iraq in Washington and in the country."
Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest joined Democratic Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes, Chris Van Hollen, Albert R. Wynn and Steny Hoyer in voting for the bill. Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett voted against it.