History shows Armenia resolution faces tough odds

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 26, 2007 

WASHINGTON — Armenian genocide resolutions such as the one that collapsed this week confound congressional leaders and presidential candidates alike.

Promises come easily, and are politically alluring. Delivery is difficult, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi now has learned the hard way. Failure brings second-guessing and no guarantee of when the resolution might return.

"We'll continue to stay focused on this," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "We'll await our time."

The resolution declares that "the Armenian genocide was conceived and carried out by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923" and "1,500,000 men, women and children were killed."

Turkish officials say the resolution twists history, and they spent $300,000 a month lobbying against it. Bush administration officials say the resolution undermines relations with a country that borders Iraq and Iran.

Late Thursday, resolution supporters asked Pelosi to put it off until a "more favorable" time. Translated: They lack the votes. Publicly, supporters say they can still win before the 110th Congress ends next year.

"We're going to be working this really hard," Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Friday. "When we bring it up, we want to be absolutely confident we have the votes."

Skeptics — some of them resolution co-sponsors — are doubtful. One, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said Friday that there was "zero" chance of reviving the measure next year.

"Democrats aren't going to bring it up," Nunes said. "They've got shaky feet."

Nunes speculated that the letter sent by Schiff and others to Pelosi late Thursday afternoon amounted to political cover, a concession of defeat also designed to shield the Democratic leader from criticism about letting the bill die.

Undeniably, the genocide resolution puts lawmakers in a bind, and Pelosi wasn't the first leader to get entangled in it.

As candidates, George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush, endorsed the Armenian genocide characterization. They did so in statements to Armenian-American voters, a political force in certain regions.

As presidents, both subsequently repudiated the term. Neither used it in annual commemorations of the 1915-23 Ottoman Empire horrors.

"These are not the Ottomans," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. "What we have tried to do instead is to get the Turks and the Armenians to work together to look to their future."

President Clinton likewise avoided the Armenian-genocide phrase. The rhetorical hesitancy, said Elizabeth Chouldjian of the Armenian National Committee of America, "is not a Republican or a Democratic" trend. Instead, it reflects the difference between a candidate seeking domestic votes and a governmental leader on the world stage.

The same conflict, between politics and governance, can trip up congressional leaders.

Then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert reportedly pledged in 2000 that he'd bring a genocide resolution to the floor. He made the promise while campaigning for Republican incumbent James Rogan, challenged by Schiff in a district with many Armenian-American voters.

At the last minute in October 2000, Hastert pulled the bill at Clinton's behest.

Pelosi's turn came this month, after the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved the genocide resolution by 27-21.

"I said if it comes out of committee, it will go to the floor," Pelosi said Oct. 11. "Now it has come out of committee, and it will go to the floor."

She left no wiggle room. But behind the scenes, her lieutenant, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., was advising her that the resolution was a losing idea. In barely a week, 14 members of the House of Representatives withdrew their co-sponsorship.

The defections left the resolution with 211 co-sponsors and showed, Nunes said, whom the Armenian-American community can really depend on. But there are other Capitol Hill lessons, too.

Pelosi, for instance, didn't press for a vote despite her insistence Oct. 11 that "there was a need to speak out" on genocide.

"Pelosi's pragmatism has trumped her ideology many, many times," said Marc Sandalow, the author of a forthcoming Pelosi biography titled "Madame Speaker." "She is loath to take losing votes; she never wants to reveal weakness."

The fight further showed how personal relationships are key. When Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., was asked why he originally backed the resolution that he later rejected, he said that "Adam Schiff asked me to." Timing is crucial, too One former resolution supporter, Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Fla., explained that many lawmakers sign resolutions "when it's not presented as having any downside."

But as a vote neared and Turkish soldiers mobilized to fight Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq, abstract principles suddenly became a real-world problem.

"In part, we're dependent upon the facts on the ground," Schiff said.

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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