House is set to wrestle with the war

Times Staff Writers

As the House this week launches its first major debate over the Iraq war since the November elections, Democrats are counting on many Republicans to join them in passing a resolution opposing President Bush’s troop buildup.

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Maryland Republican, predicts that 30 to 60 of his colleagues will back the nonbinding resolution, which would be the strongest repudiation of Bush’s Iraq policy from Republicans since the war began nearly four years ago.

Opponents of the troop increase include Republicans who, until now, have stood with the president. Amid continuing turmoil in Baghdad and rising casualty figures, anxiety about the White House strategy in Iraq has been building among GOP lawmakers, and many of them blame it for their party’s loss of control of Congress.

“Many of us have just watched this thing unfold and see nothing changing,” said Gilchrest, whose largely rural district has lost 23 service members in Iraq and Afghanistan. “You face the families and you have to have something to tell them.”

The debate, likely to be highly emotional, begins Tuesday and is expected to last three or four days. Each of the House’s 435 members will be given five minutes to speak.


The resolution will express support for the U.S. military personnel in harm’s way, while opposing adding 21,500 troops to the 135,000-plus already in Iraq. A Senate vote on a similar resolution has been held up in a partisan dispute over debate rules. Eight GOP senators have expressed support for a resolution critical of the White House plan.

The House debate is expected to be followed by more aggressive efforts by Congress’ new Democratic majority to challenge the administration, including attempts to restrict funding for the war and set dates for troop withdrawals -- though some of these actions may divide the party’s rank and file.

“It’s time for a new policy,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “This is now four years that we’ve been at this effort, and 3 1/2 years after the president said the mission -- whatever the mission was -- was accomplished.”

In a preview of the debate, Hoyer’s GOP counterpart, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, appearing on the same program, acknowledged that the resolution would draw some GOP support but challenged Democrats to offer an alternative strategy.

“If you don’t like the president’s plan, Steny, what is your plan for success?” Boehner asked, predicting dire consequences if the U.S. failed to shore up Iraq. “Who doesn’t believe that if we withdraw and leave that chaos in the Middle East, that the terrorists won’t follow us here to the United States?”

In an interview, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) said, “I call it the status quo resolution. It basically says ‘Don’t do something’ without saying what we should do.”

Others say it is an important symbolic vote -- one that, if it is backed by a substantial number of the president’s usually loyal GOP supporters, would increase pressure on the administration to reconsider its Iraq strategy.

Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Boston University, said the vote is “the opening act of a debate that will unfold over the next two years, right into the 2008 election.”

Republican leaders want a vote on alternative resolutions that would oppose cutting funds for the war effort and would set up a bipartisan panel to oversee whether Bush’s strategy was working and whether Iraqis were moving to assume greater responsibility for security of their country.

But Hoyer said he wanted to avoid the kind of procedural fight that had tied up the Senate. “We want a very straightforward, clear answer to the question: ‘Do you support the president’s escalation?’ ” he said.

The resolution will have at least one GOP co-sponsor, North Carolina Rep. Walter B. Jones, a conservative who publicly broke with his party over the war in 2005.

For many other Republicans, deciding how to vote on the resolution will be tough: Do they stick with an unpopular president over a war that is losing public support? Or do they break from their party leaders and risk angering some of their GOP supporters?

Among the Republicans who have come out against the buildup are Reps. James T. Walsh of New York, who narrowly won reelection, and Phil English of Pennsylvania, whose district has been the site of antiwar protests, as well as Roscoe G. Bartlett of Maryland, John J. Duncan Jr. of Tennessee and Steven C. LaTourette of Ohio. It was not known how many of them would vote for the resolution.

English, who won reelection with 53.6% of the vote (his lowest winning percentage since 1996), acknowledged that he had received calls from Republicans in his district angry over his break with the president. But, he said, “if they’re looking for someone to be a more predictable supporter of the Republican line, they’re probably not looking for someone they can get elected.”

A number of House Republicans are pushing for a resolution that would urge the president to more closely follow the recommendations of the bipartisan, independent Iraq Study Group, but one of those recommendations -- opening talks with Iran and Syria -- has already been rejected by the White House.

Democrats, meanwhile, appear increasingly unified behind the resolution being prepared by their leaders. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), a leader of the strongest antiwar wing of the party, last week urged support for the nonbinding resolution, even though she and others are pushing for more aggressive steps to end the war.