Seeking to dispel suggestions that the war in Iraq could lead to reinstatement of the draft, House Republicans on Tuesday hastily brought the idea to a vote -- with the express intent of shooting it down.
The vote, launched with only hours of notice and no public hearings, was designed to put an end to talk that President Bush’s foreign policy could overtax the all-volunteer Army that has been national policy since the end of the Vietnam War.
“It’s putting a rumor to rest,” John Feehery, a spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said even before the 402-2 vote to reject the bill that would have mandated two years of military or civilian service for all men and women 18 to 26 years old.
But congressional Democrats and activists elsewhere denounced the vote as an empty exercise that trivialized what many Americans believe is a real possibility.
“They have used gamesmanship to give a false sense that there is not going to be a draft. Nobody wants a draft. But if you don’t have the manpower to confront the need, then there is no option,” said Bobby Muller, founder of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, an international organization that addresses the causes and consequences of war.
Speculation about a draft has grown in intensity as tours of duty in Iraq have grown longer, more National Guard forces have been called up and recruitment has sagged. Some military authorities have questioned whether the United States’ armed forces are large enough to defeat the insurgents in Iraq and meet military needs elsewhere.
Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, suggested during a campaign stop in Iowa on Tuesday that the Bush administration could reinstitute the draft.
“I’ve never said they’re going to have a draft,” Kerry said. “I’ve said I don’t know what they’re going to do. I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to pursue a policy that guarantees that we don’t have to have a draft.”
Administration officials have flatly ruled out the prospect of a new draft, and Bush said at a campaign stop this week that “we will not have a draft so long as I’m the president of the United States.”
But the idea remains politically explosive -- especially among young people and their parents -- at the height of a presidential election campaign.
In a recent survey by the Alliance for Security, a Washington-based project to establish a dialogue about national security, more than half of those polled voiced concern that the United States could be headed for a draft “in the near future.”
Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan group founded in 1990 to motivate young voters, recently sent e-mails to 640,000 college-age people featuring a fake conscription card emblazoned with the words: “You have been drafted.”
The subject has been discussed with persistence on college campuses and on the Internet, where copies of Tuesday’s draft bill have circulated among parents and teachers.
And when the Selective Service System recently stepped up efforts to recruit volunteers to serve on 1,980 draft boards around the country, the agency said it merely wanted to be “prepared to manage a draft if and when the president and the Congress so direct.” That attempt at readiness appeared to propel speculation that was already traveling fast.
Given the closeness of the presidential race, Republican strategists worry that young voters could be prompted to turn out for Kerry in potentially damaging numbers.
So the House GOP leadership unearthed a bill that has been gathering dust since it was introduced nearly two years ago by Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.).
Rangel wrote the bill to call attention to what he said was the result of a volunteer system -- a disproportionate number of minorities and low-income soldiers serving in today’s armed forces.
House Republicans scored the chance of passing the Universal National Service Act at zero, something that usually keeps a measure from coming to a vote. But GOP leaders did precisely the opposite Tuesday, attaching the measure to a list of uncontroversial items such as renaming post offices.
“After all the conspiracy talk and the e-mails flying all over this country,” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas said, the vote would “put a nail in that coffin.” He accused the Democrats of using the issue as a “dishonest and willful campaign of misinformation.”
“This campaign -- which started as a whisper but has since been given voice by the leading Democrats in the country today -- asserts without any evidence whatsoever that there is a secret Republican plan to reinstitute the military draft,” DeLay said.
Democrats and activists dismissed Tuesday’s House action as hollow. Rangel voted against the very bill he wrote and accused the Republicans of “prostituting” the legislative process for political gain.
Only Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) and Rep. Pete Stark (D-Hayward) voted for the measure.
Other critics said the Republicans merely had denied voters a meaningful discussion of how the military planned to meet the needs of national defense should circumstances change.
“A generation that may indeed be called to service deserves more than this,” said Hans Riemer, Washington director of Rock the Vote. “Any member of Congress who votes against this bill should be able to explain how they would avoid a draft if a full-scale civil war erupts in Iraq or if we must take military action against Iran, North Korea or another identified threat.”
The Army has acknowledged for several months that it is under extraordinary strain, with nine out of 10 active-duty divisions either playing a role in Iraq or planning to. Recruitment among reserves, who make up half the nation’s forces, has suffered. Many reservists have been forced to extend their tours of duty, which Kerry has characterized as “a backdoor draft.”
In response, Congress has appeared to be acting to bolster the all-volunteer force. Influential lawmakers, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.), have questioned the wisdom of drafting reluctant soldiers and the cost-effectiveness of training draftees for only a couple of years of service, as opposed to those who join with a career in mind.
A bill approved by the House would add 39,000 troops to the Army and Marines over the next three years. The Senate has voted to increase the size of the Army by 20,000 next year. Both chambers also have moved to increase military pay and benefits to make military careers more attractive.
Times staff writer Matea Gold in Tipton, Iowa, contributed to this report.