House battles over troops

After senior Democrat calls for pullout, GOP engineers 403-3 vote to reject quick withdrawal


WASHINGTON -- House Republicans struck back forcefully yesterday against a senior Democrat and decorated veteran who reversed his former support for the Iraq war. They called for a vote intended to put Democrats on record as supporting continued deployment.

One day after Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, announced that he had changed his mind on the war and now favored immediate withdrawal, Republicans introduced a starker version of his proposal and changed the chamber's rules to permit an immediate vote.

In a raucous debate marked by shouting and insults, Republicans accused Democrats of trying to pull the rug out from under troops in the field, and Democrats accused Republicans of "sneaky" tricks to discredit a respected elder lawmaker.

"This is not a stunt. This is not an attack on an individual. This is a legitimate question," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who introduced the withdrawal resolution. He said he was concerned that Murtha's remarks the previous day had inaccurately sent a message to the troops and the rest of the world that Congress no longer supported the deployment.

"How dare you? How dare you?" said Rep. David R. Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat. "The Republican leadership of this House is nothing short of disgraceful. ... [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."

A vote early in the evening to permit accelerated consideration of the resolution passed 211-204, with a few Republicans joining Democrats in opposing the maneuver. Late last night, the House voted 403-3 to reject the resolution calling for an immediate troop withdrawal.

A day earlier, Murtha introduced a resolution calling for the deployment to end "at the earliest practicable date." He also called for a rapid reaction force to remain in the region and for diplomacy to be accelerated to stabilize the region.

The Republican-sponsored resolution, by contrast, stated only that "it is the sense of the House of Representatives that the deployment of United States forces in Iraq be terminated immediately."

Murtha voted against the Republican version, putting himself in the politically awkward position of voting against a policy he had advocated a day earlier. Other Democrats, many of them eager to respond to declining support for the war, resented being forced to vote for a resolution, the meaning of which could be easily misconstrued in future political advertising.

Murtha "introduced a bill yesterday that I don't entirely agree with ... [but] to take his proposal and trash it, trivialize it, is ... beneath contempt," said Rep. Jack M. Spratt Jr., a South Carolina Democrat. "At long last," he added, addressing the House leadership and earning applause from Democrats, "have you no shame?"

Maryland Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a former Marine who was gravely wounded in Vietnam, called the decision of his party leaders to bring up the resolution "a dumb thing to do" and said he wanted to vote with Murtha in a gesture of solidarity.

"We're playing with people's lives here," said Gilchrest, who was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star during his military service.

Gilchrest, who represents the Eastern Shore, is one of only a handful of Republicans to sign on to a resolution that would require the White House to begin to set benchmarks for a withdrawal. Yesterday, he said that setting a firm date for leaving Iraq could actually help the situation, because the diverse groups that are working against a common enemy - the United States - might turn on one another instead.

He said yesterday's vote was a ploy to avoid having a serious debate on what to do in Iraq. That's something, he said, that Congress should be discussing weekly. Gilchrest said that Murtha's announcement on Thursday was a serious attempt to jump-start that debate that was being challenged with a political ploy.

"Is Congress irrelevant on Iraq? Yes," Gilchrest said. "Is Murtha trying to make us relevant? Yes."

During a brief speech on the House floor, Gilchrest read aloud the names of 12 soldiers from his district killed in Iraq, his voice quiet but steady and thick with emotion. "Let us debate how to finish the war, not how to continue to fight the war," he said.

The debate was loud and disruptive, with members frequently speaking out of turn and the presiding officer calling frequently for order. At one point, Democrats surged toward the Republican side of the chamber, shouting for an Ohio congresswoman to take her words back.

The incident began as Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt, who took her seat in September after a special election, was recounting a conversation with a Marine colonel.

"He asked me to send Congress a message - Stay the course. He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message - That cowards cut and run, Marines never do," Schmidt said.

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