Four days of warnings, reason and rising voices

Times Staff Writer

The House debate this week on the war in Iraq was marked by emotional commentaries and dire warnings about the costs of escalating the U.S. commitment or reducing it. On Friday, the deliberations ended with a new element: an audience.

During most of the four days consumed by the rhetorical face-off, lawmakers filed into a mostly empty House chamber to deliver their speeches. A sprinkling of aides and a few other members of Congress looked on, though frequently they were chatting among themselves or thumbing their BlackBerrys.

The mood and the interest level changed on Friday, however, as the House neared its vote on the resolution opposing President Bush’s deployment of more troops to Iraq. The measure, though nonbinding, was viewed by both sides as fraught with significance.

Democrats and Republicans alike crowded the chamber by midafternoon to cheer their sides during the final appeals for votes. Spectators waiting to enter the third-floor public galleries lined the halls and the marble stairs.


Lawmakers on both sides of the issue said their votes were important. For some, the issue was personal.

That was evident when Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), an Iraq combat veteran, countered GOP assertions that Democrats were undermining troop morale.

“We are the troops” said Murphy, 33, his voice rising and his face suddenly flushed. “Friends that we served with when we deployed are

It was also evident when 76-year-old Sam Johnson (R-Texas), a prisoner of war in Vietnam for almost seven years, shuffled to the floor on his cane three times during the week to speak against the resolution.

“I know what it does to morale and mission success,” to have Congress express disapproval of a war effort, Johnson, whose body is twisted from years of beatings and confinement in leg irons, said Friday.

“Moms and dads watching the news need to know that the Congress will not leave their sons and daughters in harm’s way without support,” he continued. “Let my body serve as a brutal reminder that we must not repeat the mistakes of the past.”

Johnson was the next-to-last of 392 lawmakers who spoke in the debate that began early Tuesday afternoon. As he finished, fellow Republicans in the now-crowded chamber rose to applaud him for a full two minutes. Johnson hauled himself up from his chair and shook his fist in acknowledgment.

Some Democrats briefly joined the ovation. Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), who as chairman of the House Armed Service Committee gave his party’s last speech, paid him homage at the start of his remarks.


On Friday, after a total of 44 hours and 55 minutes of debate, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) declared that “for the most part, the tenor of the debate rose to the occasion.”

As lawmakers filed out of the chamber after the vote, some rushing to catch planes to their districts, many said they believed they had participated in a historic event.

Rep. Timothy J. Walz (D-Minn.) a former Army National Guardsman who served in Afghanistan and who rooms in Washington with Murphy, said he was “thankful” for the chance to vote for the resolution.

He said that Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame) had told him, “There is nothing nonbinding about the vote of a U.S. congressman representing his or her district in that sacred chamber, especially on an issue as important as a war.”


Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) took a few minutes to explain why he viewed the vote as a “successful failure.”

The number of Republicans -- 17 -- who joined with virtually all of the House Democrats to pass the resolution was below some expectations for GOP defections. That kept the tally below the two-thirds threshold that would be needed to override a presidential veto of future war-related legislation.

“The real battle is coming, and Republicans have laid a foundation to defend funding for the troops,” Pence said.