WASHINGTON—The House of Representatives voted Friday to oppose a troop buildup in Iraq, the first time since the war began nearly four years ago that Congress has gone on record against President Bush's policy.
Seizing that momentum, Senate Democratic leaders are delaying their weeklong recess to hold a vote Saturday afternoon on whether to consider the House's plan. They'll try to pressure enough Senate Republicans up for re-election next year to join them and allow the debate to begin—or they'll blast those Republicans as supporting the escalation of an unpopular war.
While the House's 246 to 182 vote on a nonbinding resolution carries no force of law, its political symbolism gives it some historic significance. Congress has rarely objected to a president's military strategy once combat is under way.
Seventeen Republicans voted for the resolution—about half what Democrats had hoped for—while two Democrats from conservative districts voted against it: Reps. Gene Taylor of Mississippi and Jim Marshall of Georgia.
War opponents hope Friday's vote will serve as a turning point, the first of several actions that the Democratic-led Congress will take to pressure the president to redeploy troops to Afghanistan, the Middle East or elsewhere, or bring them home.
But getting binding anti-war legislation through the Senate, where Democrats hold only a 51-49 majority, and past Bush's veto, will be difficult, if not impossible.
Republican congressional leaders said that retreating from Baghdad would lead to chaos in the Middle East and embolden terrorists.
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said, "The passage of this legislation will signal a change in direction in Iraq that will end the fighting and bring our troops home."
She steered clear of endorsing any specific plans to condition funding or limit troop deployments, but said she wanted redeployment to begin within six months. She added, "We want our troops to have the training and equipment they need when they go into war."
Bush has vowed to proceed with his 21,500-troop buildup anyway.
White House spokesman Tony Snow downplayed the significance of the House vote and warned against stronger action to restrict or cut off war funding.
"Soon, Congress will have the opportunity to show its support for the troops in Iraq by funding the supplemental appropriations request the president has submitted, and which our men and women in combat are counting on," he said in a prepared statement. "The president believes that the Congress should provide the full funding and flexibility our armed forces need to succeed in their mission to protect our country."
As the House prepared to deliver its symbolic rebuke, Bush insisted that his latest plan for Iraq is already paying off. He held a 45-minute videoconference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki Friday morning, then told reporters that Iraq is living up to its commitments to provide more security forces and to stop sectarian interference in security matters. He also praised the Iraqi government for approving a budget that includes $10 billion for reconstruction.
But Bush also repeated his warning to Iraq that "our patience is not unlimited" and said he told Maliki "how closely we're watching" the Iraqi government's performance.
House Democrats and some Republicans who crossed party lines to support the resolution maintained that the Iraq war has distracted the United States from the broader fight against Islamic terrorism. They also contended that military intervention cannot quell a civil war and that Iraqis must make the political compromises necessary for peace.
Nevertheless, Democrats fear being accused of endangering U.S. ground troops, which is making their leaders cautious as they weigh how to move forward. The House and Senate have yet to assess what legislation requiring Bush to alter his war strategy could pass either chamber, but several options are under discussion.
Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a Pelosi ally, wants to attach conditions to the pending war budget that would prevent soldiers and Marines who aren't well rested or trained from being sent to Iraq and limit the length of their deployments to no more than 12 months.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, called Murtha's plan "the slow bleed to restrict the president's ability to reinforce our troops in Iraq" and said Friday's vote was "a first step down a treacherous path—a path that, if followed, will endanger Americans for generations to come."
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and other lawmakers want to repeal Congress' 2002 authorization of the use of force that allowed the U.S. to invade Iraq.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., wants to cap troop levels and begin redeployment, with all combat troops out by March 2008.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., has proposed cutting funds for continued operations in Iraq after six months, except for those involved in counterterrorism, protection of U.S. personnel and training Iraqi security forces. Most lawmakers aren't ready to go that far.
Leading up to Friday's House vote, 392 members, all but 43, spoke for or against the non-binding resolution. The debate spanned 44 hours and 55 minutes over the course of four days.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a leader in the 1960s civil rights movement, said: "We will never find the answers to the problems we have created in Iraq down the barrel of a gun. My greatest fear is that the young people growing up in the Middle East will never forget this American invasion. My greatest fear is that they will grow up to hate our children, our grandchildren and generations yet unborn because of what we're doing today in Iraq." He voted for the resolution.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said that if the United States pulls troops out now, "where will it stop? Afghanistan? The Persian Gulf? The entire Middle East? Once we have abandoned our allies in Iraq, why should anyone in the world believe when we say that we draw a line in the sand and say we will never abandon them?"
She opposed the resolution.
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Ron Hutcheson contributed to this report.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.