WASHINGTON — Hours after President Bush appealed for more time for his Iraq plan to work, the House of Representatives voted 223-201 Thursday for a dramatic change of course — a troop withdrawal to start in four months and a shift in the mission by next year mainly to fight against international terrorists.
Both the House vote and a similar one planned in the Senate next week add pressure on Republicans facing widespread frustration with the war. Most Republicans say they won’t vote to force Bush to withdraw troops on a timetable and that they'll wait until a mid-September report to decide whether to change course.
In heated speeches and cloakroom buttonholing, war critics leaned on Republicans to join them behind a plan that keeps the anti-terrorism element of Bush’s strategy but leaves it up to Iraq’s government and military to secure the country. At the same time, several bipartisan amendments were in the drafting stages that aim to push, if not force, a change in course in the next few months.
House Democrats said that with casualties in Iraq high and worldwide terrorism threats growing, there was no reason to hold back, and they pressured Republicans to reject the president’s strategy now. They were 67 votes short of a two-thirds majority necessary to override a presidential veto, however.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said there would be more votes on Iraq, however, "hopefully with an increasing level of support from our Republican colleagues."
"We have a duty not just to voice our opposition but to vote to end the war," she said.
Rep. William "Mac" Thornberry, R-Texas, said the measure was an attempt to play politics with the war.
"Of course the American people are concerned about the course of events in Iraq. But responsible leadership does not permit pandering to polls and understandable emotions without facing up to the consequences of the vote," he said.
Democrats acknowledged they might be short of the 60 votes they'd need in the narrowly divided Senate to have a withdrawal amendment survive a filibuster.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who wants to wind down the combat mission but doesn’t support forced withdrawals, said the votes in the House and Senate are more about appeasing Democrats' base than forcing a change.
"Their members have said, 'This is the reason we obtained control of both houses. People want us to debate this.' But if you're asking effectively does it change the president’s mind ... no, it doesn't really have an effect. The president will have to make those choices," Lugar said.
Some Democrats nonetheless asked Republicans to join them.
"The report in September, I guarantee my colleagues, will reflect exactly what we see today. The civil war will be raging on. There will be no real political progress," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said in a speech in the Senate.
"Each member really has to ask themselves in these next days, what is our responsibility to our soldiers and to our country? We hear people in cloakrooms privately saying it's wrong. But it doesn't translate into votes. How are you going to feel in September if you finally wind up saying, 'Well I think the policy is broken now?'"
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who's been a strong supporter of Bush, said he wouldn't support a withdrawal because he worried about chaos in Iraq, but said senators "have to make some very tough decisions."
"We can't continue to be engaged in a war which the American people do not support," he said in an interview.
"I don't know the answer. I don't know anybody that does."
The House bill called for a change of mission by April 1, 2008, when a smaller American force would remain in Iraq with a pared-down mission to fight al Qaida terrorists, protect diplomats and other Americans, and train Iraqi forces. All but four Republicans opposed the bill. Ten Democrats also voted against it.
Under the House and Senate measures, Bush and military commanders would decide how many American forces to leave in Iraq to fight terrorists. Ending factional violence would be left up to the Iraqis and diplomacy.
House Republicans said Democrats were defeatist and using the war for political advantage.
"By binding our military and our foreign policy in a straitjacket, this legislation would accomplish what thousands of our enemies have sought — to force the United States to retreat from Iraq without a plan for victory," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.
Bush on Thursday used an interim assessment of the war that showed mixed progress to urge Congress and Americans to give the surge more time. The White House's report to Congress revealed that the Iraqi government has made some progress toward meeting eight of 18 benchmarks toward ending violence and establishing a stable government. Bush called it "cause for optimism."
Eight others had no progress, and two were so mixed they could go either way.
The report found that the security forces operate largely along sectarian lines, the government is complicit in armed faction operations, and the most notable accomplishments came "with substantial coalition assistance."
The Iraqi government hadn't set a date for provincial elections or passed a law to share oil revenues among all Iraqi groups, the report noted.
Bush said that the surge of some 30,000 troops since January, which only in recent weeks reached full capacity, needs more time before its impact can be fully measured.
"We need to ensure that when American forces do pull back that terrorists and extremists don't take control," Bush said. He also called for America to continue to stand with "this young democracy."
At the same time, more than 3,600 American troops have been killed and thousands injured, the war is costing $10 billion per month, and the Shiite-dominated government has failed to meet benchmarks it set months ago.
"He is telling the American people to be patient. We cannot wait. We cannot be patient. The American people want to end this war and end it now," said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. "How many more of our young people must die before we realize enough is enough?"
(David Goldstein, William Douglas and Nancy A. Youssef contributed.)