WASHINGTON—Republicans and Democrats clashed Friday in a sometimes raucous floor fight in the House of Representatives after Republican leaders sought to renounce Democratic Rep. John Murtha's call for a prompt withdrawal of troops from Iraq.
The House voted 403-3 against a resolution to pull troops immediately out of Iraq after Democratic leaders dismissed the measure as a political stunt that distorted Murtha's intentions. The three votes in favor were cast by Democrats.
Still, in a House where debate is usually limited to one- or two-minute speeches, Murtha, a Vietnam veteran, mounted an extraordinary 25-minute critique of the war and a defense of his pullout plan before a nearly packed House chamber.
"The war is not going as advertised," Murtha said. "The American public is way ahead of us . . . We cannot continue on the present course. It is evident that continued military action is not in the best interest of the United States. That's my opinion."
Murtha announced his stance Thursday, just two days after the Senate, in a 79-19 vote, called on President Bush to spell out an exit strategy for Iraq. Though the Senate rejected an effort to set a timetable for withdrawal, it was the strongest indication yet of congressional apprehension about the direction of the war.
House Republicans on Friday said they feared that media coverage of the Senate vote and of Murtha's stance could create an impression in the United States and abroad that Congress's commitment to completing the mission in Iraq was wavering.
"We have an opportunity to do something tonight ... to cut through that ambiguity, that confusion," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
While Democrats disagree among themselves on how to withdraw from Iraq, they accused Republicans of staging the hasty vote to embarrass Murtha, an ex-Marine who is the ranking Democrat on the defense appropriations subcommittee and is one of the leading Democratic voices on military issues.
"Give us a real debate, don't bring this piece of garbage to the floor," said Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass.
Hunter's resolution stated: "That it is the sense of the House of Representatives that the deployment of United States forces in Iraq be terminated immediately."
Murtha noted that his proposal calls for the deployment of troops to end immediately and that their withdrawal occur "at the earliest practicable date." His resolution also called for basing a Marine quick-strike force in the region.
Chaos erupted early when Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, quoted an Ohio legislator who had called her to protest Murtha's stance. "He asked me to send Congress a message: Stay the course. He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message, that cowards cut and run, Marines never do," she said.
Democrats demanded that she withdraw her remarks while, on the floor, Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., and Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Col., quarreled loudly in a small scrum of lawmakers.
Schmidt, the newest member of the House, backed down and asked that her comments be removed from the record. "My remarks were not directed at any member of the House and I did not intend to suggest that they applied to any member," she said. "Most especially the distinguished gentleman from Pennsylvania."
Republicans protested that the issue was not Murtha. In fact, many praised him even as they criticized any effort to set a timetable on withdrawal.
"This debate has been a report card on Jack Murtha and I give him an A-plus as a truly great American," Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., said as applause filled the chamber. Then Hyde added with a smile: "Among his many great qualities, infallibility is not one."
But the chamber eventually calmed down and the discussion turned to the mission in Iraq. Republicans argued that troops should remain in Iraq until Iraqis can defend and govern themselves. Democrats, led by Murtha, said that increases in insurgent attacks and Iraqi-public opposition to the troops made the mission impossible.
President Bush, speaking in South Korea, alluded indirectly to Murtha in remarks to U.S. troops. He quoted Maj. Gen. William Webster, a commander in Iraq, who warned that a deadline for withdrawal would be a "recipe for disaster."
"So long as I am Commander-in-Chief, our strategy in Iraq will be driven by the sober judgment of our military commanders on the ground," he said. "So we will fight the terrorists in Iraq, and we will stay in the fight until we have achieved the victory our brave troops have fought and bled for."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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