WASHINGTON — Rep. Wally Herger supported an Armenian genocide resolution until Monday. Then he changed his mind.
The California Republican isn't alone. Amid intense lobbying pressure, 17 House of Representatives members have withdrawn their support for the genocide resolution approved last week by a key House committee. The flips are coming faster, with seven lawmakers withdrawing their support Monday, and they could put the resolution's future at risk.
"All of a sudden this is heating up," Herger said Tuesday, when asked about his changed position, "and so you start to wonder, is this a wise thing to be doing now?"
The formal number of genocide resolution co-sponsors has dropped to 218, potentially a slim majority in a House with 432 voting members (there are three vacancies). More lawmakers could switch positions in coming days.
"I suspect there will be others," said Rep. Allen Boyd, a Florida Democrat who withdrew his support on Monday.
The resolution approved last Wednesday by the House Foreign Affairs Committee declares that "the Armenian genocide was conceived and carried out by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923." The nonbinding resolution further avers that "1,500,000 men, women, and children were killed."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hasn't yet scheduled a floor vote, although she says she will. One key question is whether the vote will be put off if public support falls further. Significantly, even the 218 co-sponsors listed Tuesday may overstate support for the resolution.
One co-sponsor still listed Tuesday died in April. One is a Puerto Rico delegate whose vote won't count if it affects the final outcome. A third co-sponsor, Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., argues that now is "the wrong time" to bring up the measure.
The resolution is symbolic, needing neither Senate approval nor the president's signature. Nonetheless, it has ignited a diplomatic crisis.
The Turkish government considers the resolution a historically inaccurate insult, contending that "hundreds of thousands" of Turks and Armenians died in a complicated war. To protest the House committee action, Turkey temporarily withdrew its ambassador to the United States. Simultaneously, the Turkish parliament is expected this week to brush aside Bush administration concerns and approve a military strike against Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq.
Pentagon officials warn that deteriorating relations could undermine the U.S. occupation of Iraq, which depends heavily on Turkey's Incirlik Air Base for supplies. Bush and his top Cabinet and Pentagon officials have been making personal calls.
"The White House is putting on a full-court press," said resolution supporter Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif.
So is the government of Turkey, which has reported paying $300,000 a month for lobbyists.
A Congressional Caucus on Turkey, co-led by Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., is increasingly vocal in speaking out against the resolution, but it's still much smaller than the 156-member Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues.
With so many members, the Armenian caucus could easily rally co-sponsors for a resolution "presented as not having any downside," Boyd said. He signed up on June 28, before the international controversy escalated. Last week, during a visit to Baghdad, Boyd was swayed by Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.
"He was pretty adamant that the resolution would harm our interests in the Middle East," Boyd said.
One of Pelosi's top lieutenants and the chair of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., will be urging Wednesday that the resolution be dropped.
Herger, though, said he hadn't heard directly from lobbyists. Rather, he said he simply came to the conclusion by following media accounts that "now is not the time to be going after Turkey."
The lawmakers withdrawing support come from both parties and all regions of the country. None come from regions with large Armenian-American constituencies.
Some, such as Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., declined Tuesday to explain their change of heart. Others, such as Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., said that they learned more since their original endorsement decision.
"The closer we've come to a vote, the more informed I've become," said Ross, who withdrew his support Monday.