Once again, quest for Armenian genocide resolution begins

WASHINGTON — The latest version of an Armenian genocide resolution is on track to win House committee approval, but its long-term prospects remain uncertain.

This plot is familiar. Some characters have changed. The denouement is still to be determined.

On March 4, the House Foreign Affairs Committee is set to vote on a resolution declaring that "the Armenian Genocide was conceived and carried out by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923." Some consider the resolution diplomatically dangerous, but vote-counters consider committee passage a foregone conclusion.

"We are confident of a positive outcome," said Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America. "We have a track record of the committee approving the resolution in the past."

Typically, congressional committee chairs will only bring up measures they are confident will pass.

Residents of California's San Joaquin Valley, and other regions with large Armenian-American populations, are watching all of the action closely, and in some cases participating directly in it. The House panel's members include a number of resolution co-sponsors, including Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

Advocates of the resolution say it's important to account for the Ottoman Empire killings and depredations that occurred during and after World War I, when by estimates upward of 1.5 million Armenians died.

"Genocide is not something that can simply be swept under the rug and forgotten, and our nation cannot continue its policy of denial regarding the Armenian genocide," Costa said.

Approval by the 45-member House Foreign Affairs Committee, though, is a far cry from getting the diplomatically dicey resolution through the full 435-member House of Representatives.

Currently, for instance, the resolution has only 137 House co-sponsors, far short of the 218 needed for House approval. The last time the issue arose, in 2007, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declined to bring the resolution to the House floor until it had the requisite 218 co-sponsors.

Opponents are bringing out their big guns, warning the resolution would interfere with good diplomatic relations. Turkish and Armenian negotiators last year agreed to a set of protocols designed to smooth diplomatic relations, but the respective legislatures have not yet formally ratified them.

"That would be jeopardized by a political act of passing this resolution," said David Saltzman, chief counsel to the Turkish Coalition of America. "Passage of this resolution would be a potentially impenetrable hurdle (to reconciliation)."

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has likewise recently denounced the resolution as doing serious harm to U.S.-Turkey relations.

This plea of bad timing is one of the many familiar elements in the Armenian genocide fight.

In 2007, the Bush administration successfully argued the resolution would undermine the use of Turkish bases to resupply U.S. forces in Iraq. In 2000, then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert killed the resolution, citing "unusually tense" conditions in the Middle East.

High-powered lobbying is another familiar plot line.

Hastert is now registered as a lobbyist for the Turkish government. His firm, Dickstein Shapiro, has been paid up to $45,000 a month for its work on Turkey's behalf, public records show. One-time House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt is likewise a registered lobbyist for Turkey.

Some hope the arrival of the Obama administration will shake up these familiar faces and oft-heard arguments.

"A lot of things have changed," said Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America.

While they were in the Senate and campaigning, Hamparian noted, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all endorsed Armenian genocide recognition.

Presidents, though, often back away from their campaign-season Armenian genocide resolution pledges. Obama, for one, avoided the term "genocide" in his presidential Armenia proclamation in April. Reading between the lines, one might see further hints of a pending administration retreat on the resolution itself.

"Our view is that the negotiations that have been taking place between Turkey and Armenia offer a positive path for the future," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in early February. "Anything that would impede the success of those discussions and negotiations I think is objectionable. I would just leave it there."