WASHINGTON—The House of Representatives moves to the brink Friday of voting whether to continue funding the war in Iraq while demanding an end to most American military involvement there by the end of August 2008.
The vote is expected to be very close because anti-war Democrats are divided: Some say the measure wouldn't end the war fast enough or put enough pressure on President Bush, while others said it would be the first step and the toughest bill possible that has a chance to pass.
Yet after weeks of internal debate, the Democrats' Progressive Caucus agreed Thursday morning to let their members vote their consciences rather than insist that they all oppose the bill. Ten members agreed to support the bill, despite their strong reservations, in order to pass it.
Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., a longtime war opponent and member of the caucus, said in a floor speech that he told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that he'd vote for it, and he encouraged others to do the same. McDermott, who's serving his 10th term, said it was one of the most important votes he would cast.
"Speaker Pelosi has given America a plan, a timetable and course of action, demonstrating the leadership we have never seen from the president on Iraq," McDermott said.
Most Republicans and some conservative Democrats oppose the measure because it would set timelines for a redeployment of troops. They argued that Congress shouldn't tell the military how to run the war, that setting timelines gives enemies too clear an idea of American military plans, and that violence and terrorism in Iraq would increase if U.S. forces left.
The $124 billion spending bill mostly funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with extra money tucked in for veterans' health care, hurricane recovery and farm aid.
A similar measure planned in the Senate, which is almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, would require significant Republican support to pass because of that 100-member chamber's 60-vote majority rule. That's not likely soon.
Bush has said he'd veto the bill if Congress passes it. He wants a spending bill with no conditions attached.
As House debate opened Thursday, Republicans said they opposed the bill because the timelines it set would interfere with the military's ability to run the war. They also complained that it added too much unrelated spending.
"This legislation ties the hands of our commander in chief during a time of war and places military decisions in the hands of politicians," said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif. He said it would signal to enemies that the United States "doesn't have the political will to continue to support this fledgling democracy in Iraq" and that if Iraq's government collapses, the sacrifice of American forces would have been for nothing.
Lewis warned that redeployment could result in regional destabilization that would threaten Israel. He called for giving the president a "clean" bill with no extra spending or conditions.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said Democratic leaders pushing the bill had been "anguished" over how to get it right. McGovern said it was a difficult decision for him as well because he wants a quicker end to the war.
But McGovern said he concluded that defeat of the bill would "result in more of the same—more deceit and empty promises, more ignored benchmarks and missed deadlines, more American casualties, more debt passed on to our children and grandchildren, more harm to our reputation around the world, and more war."
Not all Democrats were ready to go along, however.
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said the bill was a "very important step," but that "for some of us, voting for funds for war with strings attached and no real enforcement really does keep our troops in harm's way." Lee wants to withdraw troops and contractors by Dec. 31.
"Too many lives have been lost and too many lives have been shattered," Lee said.
Beyond funding the war in Iraq, with conditions, the measure would:
_Add $1.2 billion more for the war in Afghanistan than Bush requested; $3.4 billion for veterans' and military health care; $2.5 billion to prepare troops in the United States for combat; $6.4 billion for hurricane recovery; and $3.7 billion for agricultural assistance.
_Require that the Iraqi government meet benchmarks that Bush outlined in January for quelling the violence. Redeployment would be sped up if the benchmarks weren't met. Some American forces would remain in Iraq to train Iraqis, protect American diplomats and military forces, and fight terrorists.
_Require that the president explain his decision if he sends any troops into combat who aren't fully trained, rested and equipped.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.