Citing heightened tensions in the Middle East, House Republican leaders Thursday agreed to a request from President Clinton and abruptly canceled a vote on an Armenian genocide resolution bitterly opposed by Turkey, scuttling the measure for the year.
The GOP had pushed for a vote on the measure to aid Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Glendale), who is facing a tough reelection campaign in a district with a large Armenian American population.
But minutes before debate was to begin on the resolution, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) pulled it from the agenda, citing a warning from Clinton that its passage could have “far-reaching negative consequences.”
The resolution called on the president to use the word “genocide” when referring to the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Empire forces in the early decades of the 1900s. Armenians have estimated that 1.5 million of their people perished as part of a campaign to drive them from what is now Turkey.
Although the resolution was strictly advisory, it rankled the Turkish government, which disputes the number of Armenians killed and denies they were the victims of an organized effort. Turkey is a key U.S. military ally that borders Syria, Iran and Iraq, and the increased unrest in the Middle East heightened Clinton’s efforts to sidetrack the resolution.
“The president has made plain his very strong concerns about the timing of this resolution and its possible impact on our interests in the Middle East,” Hastert said.
Hastert had pledged to schedule a vote on the resolution while campaigning for Rogan in his district earlier this year. Rogan’s race against state Sen. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) is one of a handful that will determine which party controls the House after the Nov. 7 elections.
But as the measure advanced to the House floor, it set off a clash of local politics and international diplomacy. Turkish officials warned that the resolution’s passage would have “serious repercussions” on U.S-Turkey relations.
It also pitted Clinton once again against Rogan, one of the prosecutors in the president’s impeachment trial.
In asking Hastert to put off a vote, Clinton cited the importance of Turkey, a North American Treaty Organization member, in helping to contain the threat posed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and in promoting peace and stability in the Middle East and Central Asia. U.S. jets use the Turkish base at Incirlik to enforce the Western-imposed “no-fly” zone over northern Iraq.
Hastert on Thursday stressed that he still supports the resolution. But, he said, “we all know that the situation in the Middle East is unusually tense. The cease-fire now in place between Israel and the Palestinians is fragile. . . . Current circumstances dictate that we must proceed with caution.”
Rogan supported Hastert’s action.
“Those who would seek to make a political statement at this time of foreign crises must be reminded that those who serve the public are patriots first and politicians second,” he said.
Rep. George P. Radanovich (R-Mariposa), chief sponsor of the resolution, was less understanding.
Turkey succeeded, he said, “in bluffing the leader of the free world.” He scoffed at suggestions that Turkey would retaliate if the resolution passed.
Radanovich, who had just entered the chamber to debate the resolution when he heard about the speaker’s action, acknowledged that with Congress days away from adjournment, the resolution is dead this year.
“We’ll be reintroducing it opening day in [next year’s] Congress,” he said.
Ross Vartian, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America, accused Clinton and Hastert of caving in to political pressure from Turkey. “It’s clear that all their threats had the desired effect,” he said.
About 23,000 Armenian Americans are registered to vote in Rogan’s district, a number that has doubled in the last few years. They are almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.
Times staff writer Jean Merl in Los Angeles contributed to this report.