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Veterans take the lead in House debate over Iraq war

WASHINGTON _Veterans from World War II through the current conflict in Iraq led off debate Tuesday as the House of Representatives took up a resolution to oppose President Bush's troop increase for Iraq.

"Walking in my own combat boots, I saw firsthand this administration's failed policy in Iraq," said Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., a 33-year-old freshman and the first Iraq combat veteran to serve in Congress.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, 58, a California Republican and Vietnam veteran, argued a widely held opposing view, that the resolution signals "the first sound of retreat in the world battle against extremists and terrorists."

With the nonbinding resolution expected to clear the House on Friday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he'll attempt to pass the same language in the Senate at the end of this month, after Congress returns from a weeklong recess. The Senate deadlocked last week on a wordier resolution; the House's is 97 words.

Bush has said he doesn't plan to watch the debate. He said he intends to pursue the troop buildup whatever Congress says.

Even as the nonbinding debate goes on, lawmakers on both sides are looking ahead to binding legislation that Democratic leaders might push through next.

The real wrangling begins next month when the House and Senate tackle Bush's $93.4 billion extra spending request for the current year's fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. This summer Congress will debate another $623 billion in spending on defense, including the wars, for the coming fiscal year.

It's on these war-spending measures that Democrats, especially in the House, will attempt to set conditions on which troops may be sent, when troops must come home or where they should be deployed.

On Tuesday, opponents of Bush's 21,500-troop increase called on World War II, Korea and Vietnam vets, but ultimately they looked to Murphy to personalize the debate.

"I led convoys up and down Ambush Alley in a Humvee without doors," Murphy said. "The time for more troops was four years ago. Congress will no longer give the president a blank check."

Murphy told colleagues that his parents named him after a Vietnam veteran, Patrick Ward, who had a Philadelphia park named in his honor after being killed in action.

"How many more street-corner memorials are we going to have for this war?" Murphy said. The president's plan "sends more of our best and bravest to die refereeing a civil war."

Some Republican veterans who disagree with the resolution, including Rep. Sam Johnson of Texas, who was tortured in Vietnam as a prisoner of war, won't speak until later in the week.

Others argued Tuesday that the resolution would demoralize U.S. troops and is the first step toward Democrats cutting off funds for the war.

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., an Army veteran from the 1950s and `60s, said any sign of weakness by the United States would embolden Iran to develop nuclear weapons and ratchet up prospects of a bigger war in the Middle East against Islamic fundamentalism.

"When you see people die in combat, you just can't hardly stand it," Burton said. "War is hell. But sometimes it's necessary."

Lawmakers for and against the resolution say the debate could serve as a turning point in Congress' support for the war. But the opening hours of debate were marked by a lack of urgency.

The House chamber was largely empty as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., delivered the opening remarks. She left the chamber in the middle of comments from Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Dozens of Republicans are contemplating joining the near-unanimous Democrats in the final vote for the resolution.

One will be Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, who made up his mind weeks ago. "I don't happen to believe escalation is the way to go," he said in an interview Tuesday. "It should be a matter of redeployment."

Although the White House dispatched national security adviser Stephen Hadley to advise any lawmakers who wanted to listen, LaTourette said neither Republican congressional leaders nor the White House was twisting arms.

"The attitude is, it's a vote of conscience," LaTourette said.

Pelosi and Boehner each offered unlikely analogies in their floor speeches.

Pelosi tipped her hat to mid-20th-century Sen. Robert A. Taft, a Republican from Ohio whose isolationism and opposition to World War II helped dash his chance to be president. But she recalled approvingly his line shortly after Pearl Harbor: "Criticism in a time of war is essential to the maintenance of a democratic government."

Boehner suggested that Congress' splits over how to counter Islamic terrorism are as divisive as the rift over slavery during the Civil War era. Invoking President Lincoln's line, he said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."


(Staff writer Renee Schoof contributed to this report.)


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.