WASHINGTON — Again last Saturday, U.S. Rep. Walter Jones slipped into his office for the penance he has served nearly each weekend since 2005.
Again on Thursday, the House of Representatives turned its attention to the conflict in Afghanistan, and whether it is the time for U.S. troops to leave.
On Saturday, Jones, a Republican representing one of the nation's most military-heavy congressional districts, signed two dozen letters of condolences. He has signed 9,505 in all, not only for the deceased Marines from Camp Lejeune in his district, but for the fallen throughout the country who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. He pledged to do this in 2005, after deciding that he had been wrong to support the war in Iraq.
For two hours Thursday, more than 30 members debated a resolution that would invoke the War Powers Resolution of 1973 and would require President Barack Obama to leave Afghanistan entirely by the end of this year.
The resolution was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat. Jones was the lead co-sponsor.
It is a resolution that has been debated and soundly defeated in past Congresses. Last year, it failed 65-356.
The debate comes in the same week that Gen. David Petraeus updates Congress on progress in the conflict, and as a new Washington Post poll shows that two-thirds of Americans want to bring the troops home before the anticipated end date of 2014.
At the same time, Congress remains embroiled in a larger debate about how to cut the federal budget, and so Jones hoped that Thursday, he could bring a few fiscal conservatives to his way of thinking. The war in Afghanistan costs $100 billion a year, the same amount GOP leadership pledged to remove from the current fiscal year budget.
He thinks fiscal conservatives are just beginning to see it's going to be costly to stay through 2014, the date anticipated by Pentagon leaders.
Last month, Jones proposed an amendment to the stopgap spending bill that would have cut $400 million from Afghan infrastructure projects. That lost 135-294.
But it proved, Jones said, that there are 36 Republicans willing to take money away from Afghanistan.
"If you can't explain to a soldier or a Marine, 'What is the endpoint? What is the definition of victory?' then you're in a black hole," Jones said in an interview. "And you're never going to have that."
Al Qaeda is gone, he said, with just a couple dozen members left in the country. "If that was our goal, that's victory. They're gone."
Some experts say that though the cost of human life must be considered, the United States has strong national security interests in ensuring a sustainable government there.
Daniel Serwer, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said Afghanistan runs the risk of seeing Al Qaeda moving back into its borders for cover. That would put Pakistan - and its nuclear arsenal - at risk as well.
"If we were to withdraw precipitously and head out of there by the end of the year, I think the smart money would bet on its falling apart," Serwer said in an interview.
That was the same message from Petraeus, who told the House and Senate Armed Services committees during hours of testimony this week that the past eight months have seen improvement.
"I can understand the frustration," Petraeus said Tuesday. "We have been at this for 10 years. We have spent an enormous amount of money. We have sustained very tough losses and difficult, life-changing wounds."
Obama has promised to begin removing troops in July of this year, but Petraeus would not say this week how many he would recommend to pull out. He has said that it will be 2014 before the country is likely to be stabilized.
Jones, a member of the House Armed Services committee, on Wednesday told Petraeus he thought troops would be there years longer.
The War Powers resolution vote would come Thursday afternoon. Jones hoped for 15, maybe 20, Republican supporters.
"It doesn't sound like a lot of people," he said beforehand, "but when we had three or four - just think of the percentage increase."
Just after 10 a.m. Thursday, Jones gathered up three posters - of a happy family portrait, of a military casket, of a small boy clutching a folded flag - and headed to the House floor.
Just before noon, he went to the well of the chamber and held his three posters, one by one, over his head.
He talked of the 6-year-old boy, named Tyler, holding the flag at his father's funeral in Ohio. He showed a casket being carried off a military plane at Dover Air Force Base. And he held up a photo of Marine Sgt. Thomas Bagosy, his wife, Katie, and their young son. Sgt. Bagosy died last May at Camp Lejeune.
"He pulls his car over in the middle of the day, and he puts his gun to his head and he shoots himself," Jones said. "How many more?"
As Jones spoke, Katie Bagosy was in South Carolina.
"I don't think anything's getting accomplished over there," she said in a phone interview. "We're losing more lives, and they're coming back messed up. I don't see any positive results on their end, Afghanistan, or our end, in America."
Back on the House floor, U.S. Rep. Iliana Ross-Lehtenin, a Florida Republican, strongly opposed the resolution.
"To leave Afghanistan before we finish the job is to pave the way for the next 9/11," warned Ross-Lehtenin, chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Some Democrats agreed.
"Believe me, I as much as anyone in this chamber would love to walk away," said U.S. Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, who represents the Army's Fort Lewis. But, he argued, the United States must stay.
On the Democratic side, Kucinich brought up a dozen members to support his resolution. Many praised Jones as a leader across the aisle.
Standing alongside Jones on the GOP side were just a few supporters: U.S. Reps. Jimmy Duncan of Tennessee, Ron Paul of Texas, Dan Rohrabacher of California and Jason Chaffetz of Utah.
Chaffetz didn't buy the financial argument or believe he should be guided by polls, but his voice caught as he listed the troops from his district who have been killed in Afghanistan.
"This is an emotional issue," he said later. "[Jones] and I have found real common ground in a sea of Republicans who think a different way."
The bells range just before 3 p.m. throughout the Capitol, calling lawmakers to the House floor for votes. They scrambled into the chamber.
House Concurrent Resolution failed, 93-321.
Just eight Republicans voted yes.
"You know, it's an uphill climb," Jones said afterward.
But he has more ideas planned to get out of Afghanistan; he has co-sponsored another bill on the conflict and is in talks on yet another. Jones said he anticipates maybe four more House floor votes on the issue this year.
"This isn't the end of it," Jones said.