WASHINGTON — A bitterly divided House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday approved an Armenian genocide resolution, as lawmakers overcame presidential and diplomatic resistance to commemorate an early 20th century catastrophe.
By a 27-21 vote, closer than expected, the panel approved the resolution declaring that "the Armenian genocide was conceived and carried out by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923." Upwards of 1.5 million Armenians died during the period, according to some estimates.
"Nations of the world have periods in their history that they can't overlook; we acknowledge and we confront them," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif. "My Armenian friends believe this was a genocide, and so do I."
The nonbinding resolution further calls upon President Bush to use the word "genocide" when he issues his annual Armenian message next April. The president, though, will not do so, even if the full House of Representatives approves the resolution in coming weeks.
Like Presidents Clinton and Bush before him, the president considers the phrase "Armenian genocide" historically questionable and diplomatically harmful. White House and Turkish officials alike warn that U.S.-Turkey relations will suffer if the full House approves the resolution.
"Its passage would do great harm to our relations with a key ally in NATO and in the global war on terror," Bush told reporters several hours before the committee acted.
Upwards of 70 percent of the U.S. military air cargo currently entering Iraq comes in through Turkey. The country's Incirlik air base is heavily used by U.S. warplanes, and an estimated 3,000 trucks each day enter Iraq over the Turkish border.
"America can ill-afford to lose the support of a critical ally like Turkey," said Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla.
But resolution supporters say the United States must take a moral stand.
"We cannot provide genocide denial as one of the perks of friendship with the United States," said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif.
Democrats under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., appear determined to bring the resolution before the full House. Pelosi hasn't set a date for a vote, but if she does, it appears guaranteed to pass. Two hundred and twenty-six House members — more than a majority — have already co-sponsored it.
The full House last approved an Armenian genocide resolution in 1984.
The resolution is symbolic, without force of law, and so it needs neither Senate approval nor the president's signature.
Few resolutions, though, can match the Armenian genocide measure for political intensity.
"I just don't understand why we would shoot ourselves in the foot," said Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind. "The whole (Mideast) is a tinderbox, and our strongest ally in the area is Turkey."
The committee's vote Wednesday afternoon followed more than three hours of debate. The hearing was packed as if for an opening night drama.
"We have to weigh the desire to express our solidarity with the Armenian people and to condemn this historic nightmare ...against the risk that it could cause young men and women in the uniform of the United States armed services to pay an even heavier price," said committee Chairman Tom Lantos, D-Calif.
Lantos voted for the resolution.
The Turkish Embassy, which reports spending more than $300,000 a month on lobbyists, helped pack the hearing room with supporters wearing large buttons urging no votes. The Turkish ambassador, Nabi Sensoy, sat prominently throughout the hearing alongside three visiting members of the Turkish legislature.
"It's very disappointing," Sensoy said afterward, "and I hope it won't go further than this."