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House Erupts in War Debate

Times Staff Writer

House Republicans forced a vote Friday over a proposal to begin the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, sparking a raw and raucous debate during which lawmakers hurled insults and jeered each other.

The GOP-sponsored proposal, intended to fail and aimed at embarrassing war critics, was overwhelmingly defeated shortly before midnight, 403 to 3.

But the debate vividly exposed the widening rifts between Democrats and Republicans over the course of the war -- a disagreement that increasingly has dominated congressional proceedings.

The resolution grew out of a proposal made Thursday by Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania -- a Democrat, a decorated Marine Corps veteran of the wars in Korea and Vietnam, and one of the House’s most respected military hawks -- that the United States start pulling out of Iraq.

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Republicans responded Friday by introducing a simplified version of his plan -- a move Democrats denounced as a political stunt designed to force the hand of Murtha and his fellow Democrats.

But Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), who sponsored the resolution, responded: “This is a legitimate question.”

Explaining his demand for a vote, Hunter said the escalating debate over the war had left the impression around the world “that Congress is withdrawing support of the mission in Iraq.”

During the debate, House members frequently spoke out of turn. The presiding officer repeatedly called for order.

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At one point, Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee and other Democrats surged toward the Republican side of the chamber, after Rep. Jean Schmidt, an Ohio Republican, suggested that Murtha -- the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee and the recipient of two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star -- was a coward.

Schmidt, a former state legislator who took office after a special election in August in which the war became the prominent issue, said a Marine colonel in Ohio had asked her to “send Congress a message: Stay the course.”

“He also asked me,” she said, “to send Congressman Murtha a message: Cowards cut and run. Marines never do.”

Democrats erupted in boos and shouts. “You guys are pathetic! Pathetic!” yelled Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.).

“Take her words down,” other Democrats cried, using the parliamentary language to demand that she retract what they considered a deep insult. “Take them down.”

Schmidt stood up after several minutes of frantic negotiation and retracted her remarks.

Murtha’s resolution Thursday called for a rapid “reaction force” to remain in the region and for diplomacy to be accelerated to achieve stability in Iraq. He also said the withdrawal should begin only when it could be accomplished safely.

The measure Hunter introduced said simply that “the sense of the House” was that troop deployment in Iraq should be “terminated immediately.”

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Murtha was among the vast majority of Democrats joining Republicans in voting against the resolution.

“This resolution is not what I envisioned, not what I introduced,” he said.

But, defending his goal, he added: “This war cannot be won militarily. It has to be won politically. We ought to give Iraq back to the Iraqis.”

The members who voted for the resolution were Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), Cynthia A. McKinney (D-Ga.) and Robert Wexler (D-Fla.).

Six members voted “present": Major R. Owens (D-N.Y.), William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.), Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.) and Jim McDermott (D-Wash.).

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, in South Korea where President Bush was attending a Pacific Rim trade meeting, said in a statement that Congress had “in strong, bipartisan fashion rejected the call to cut and run.”

Linking the war in Iraq with the fight against terrorism, he continued: “The best strategy to keep America safe is to continue taking the fight to the terrorists, not to retreat in the face of the despicable attacks of a determined enemy.”

Earlier in the day, Bush quoted a top U.S. commander in Iraq, saying that setting a deadline for troop withdrawal would be “a recipe for disaster.”

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Throughout the House debate, Democrats lavished praise on Murtha and his attack on the administration’s Iraq policies.

“The American people have rallied to Jack Murtha’s message of truth,” said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). Turning to the Republican side of the chamber, she continued: “But you can’t handle the truth. Why are the Republicans so afraid of the facts?”

In recognition of Murtha’s credentials as a friend of the military, some Republicans made a point of praising him Friday.

“This debate has been a report card on Jack Murtha, and I give him an A-plus as a truly great American,” said Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.).

Members from both parties stood to applaud Murtha.

Then, referring to Murtha’s call for troop withdrawal, Hyde continued: “But among his great qualities, infallibility is not one.”

Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) called the resolution “a cheap stunt that mocks the sacrifice of every man and woman serving in Iraq.”

“How dare you? How dare you?” he shouted. "[This] is nothing except an effort to drive a stake through the heart of the Murtha resolution without any effort to get to the heart of the truth of the facts about Iraq.”

Several Republicans referred to Vietnam in arguing against setting deadlines for withdrawing from Iraq.

“In case people have forgotten, this is the same thing that happened in Vietnam,” warned Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), a Vietnam veteran.

“Peaceniks and people in Congress and America started saying bad things about what was going on in Vietnam and it did a terrible thing to troop morale. I just pray that our troops and their families can block this noise out.”

Also Friday, the Bush administration continued its efforts to respond more forcefully to critics, with the Pentagon arranging a teleconference with senior military commanders who challenged Murtha’s assessment that U.S. troops had achieved all they could in Iraq.

“I think we have to finish the job that we began here,” said Army Col. James Brown of the Texas National Guard, who commands a brigade in southwestern Iraq. “It’s important for the security of this nation, it’s important for the security of this region, and certainly it’s important in the vital interest of the United States of America.”

Times staff writers Mark Mazzetti in Washington and Peter Wallsten in Pusan, South Korea, contributed to this report.


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