WASHINGTON—The House of Representatives voted Friday for the first time to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by Aug. 31, 2008, and sooner if Iraq's government fails to meet certain benchmarks for progress.
The 218-212 vote split largely along party lines, with 216 Democrats and two Republicans voting for it, and 198 Republicans and 14 Democrats against it.
The House vote reflected the American public's growing discontent with the Iraq war and President Bush's handling of it as the war enters its fifth year, and after some 3,200 U.S. deaths there. The same current helped Democrats take control of Congress in November's elections.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the vote "one great giant step" toward ending the war and said the public has "lost faith" in Bush's management of it and that "their voices have been heard."
Nevertheless, the measure won't become law anytime soon. The Senate will debate a similar measure next week, but it faces dim short-term prospects there, where Democrats command a bare 51-49 majority and need 60 votes to prevail under Senate rules. In addition, Bush pledged anew Friday to veto the legislation should Congress send it to him, and the narrow House majority is far short of the two-thirds needed to override a veto.
Bush denounced the anti-war vote as "an act of political theater" that set "an arbitrary date for withdrawal" and "has no chance of becoming law." He said that Democrats "voted to substitute their judgment for that of our military commanders on the ground in Iraq . . . I will veto it if it comes to my desk."
The House attached its troop-withdrawal language to a $124 billion spending bill that primarily would fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Democrats also attached timelines to the measure that would speed the a U.S. withdrawal unless Iraq's government meets goals that Bush set in January toward reducing violence, spending $10 billion of their own funds on reconstruction and improving the political system to treat all sects fairly. The redeployment would begin as early as July but no later than March 2008 and would take six months to complete.
"The Iraqis have to start bearing responsibility for themselves and that's why we're putting it in a bill!" shouted Rep. John Murtha, a Vietnam veteran and longtime proponent of redeploying troops from Iraq. He said that only 50 percent of the soldiers in Iraqi units were showing up to help quell sectarian violence.
Murtha spoke near the end of the highly emotional debate, and Democrats stood and cheered him.
Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., led combat troops in Iraq as a captain in the 82nd Airborne Division. His unit had 19 soldiers killed. Murphy said the vote marked the end of an era in which a Republican-dominated Congress gave the president a free hand.
"They had their chance, and they followed in lockstep as the president led this country into an open-ended commitment, refereeing a religious civil war . . . as my fellow soldiers continued to die in Iraq without a clear mission, without benchmarks to determine success, without a clear timeline for coming home," Murphy said.
From the Republican side of the aisle came equal fervor, also spoken at times by men who've seen battle.
Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, was one—an Air Force pilot who served seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, half of it in solitary confinement. He argued that setting timelines for withdrawal "literally hands the enemy our war plan and gives them hope that they'll win if they just wait it out."
Johnson also denounced the bill for being loaded with pork—which he called "political gimmickry." Besides funds for war, the bill includes money for farm aid, hurricane repair, veterans, health insurance for poor children, repairs at Walter Reed Army Hospital, homeland security and military equipment and training.
But the wisdom of the war dominated debate.
"All of us wish Iraq had gone better," conceded Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio. But he predicted that to "bring our troops home and give up" would increase terrorism and genocide, create a safe haven for enemies and shake the Middle East so greatly that it would menace Israel's future.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., a member of the House Democratic leadership, insisted that Bush's approach must change.
"Under the president's leadership, his Iraq policy comes down to something very simple: more troops, more money, more time, more of the same—that is it," said Rep.. "We fund our troops. There's one fundamental difference: We require the Iraqis to bear responsibility for Iraq."
The House vote was a victory for Pelosi and her team. They had to rally both liberal anti-war Democrats to vote to fund the war for another 17 months when liberals wanted to cut off funds much sooner, and conservative Democrats reluctant to impose strings on money for soldiers in battle. In the end, they got just enough of both.
BALANCE OF POWER
Congress previously has used its constitutional power over spending to cut off or restrict a president's ability to wage war. Some examples:
_1973-74. Congress cut off funds for combat in Indochina, and also set a ceiling of 4,000 U.S. civilian and military personnel in Vietnam.
_1976. Congress prohibited funds for military operations in Angola.
_1984-85. Congress barred use of intelligence funds for military operations in and around Nicaragua.
_1993. Congress limited funds for U.S. troops in Somalia to protection of U.N. units, and it cut off funding effective March 31, 1994, except to protect U.S. citizens.
_1995. Congress limited funds for U.S. troops in Rwanda to pay only for protection of U.S. citizens.
SOURCE: Congressional Research Service.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.