House Kills First Vote on Iraq Withdrawal

The House of Representatives voted down a measure, by a 128 to 300 vote, that called on President Bush to devise a plan for a withdrawal from Iraq. It came in the form of an amendment to the $491 billion budget for the Pentagon that was passed on Wednesday night.

But the withdrawal amendment marks the first time that Congress has officially voted and debated legislation that deals with a withdrawal.

“No, it won’t pass today, but it will give us a chance to talk about it,” said Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), the sponsor of the amendment. “It’s an opportunity for members of Congress who are frustrated that our troops are being killed for a war that wasn’t necessary in the first place and that there is no plan in sight to bring them home.”

Despite the overwhelming defeat, about two-thirds of Democrats voted for it and so did five Republicans – a dramatic shift from just a few months ago, when talk of a potential withdrawal was taboo for even the most progressive lawmakers.

Of the five Republicans to vote for Woolsey’s amendment, only one, Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina, spoke in favor of it on the House floor. Jones, one of the most conservative members in Congress, led the campaign in 2003 to change French fries to freedom fries.

“We’ve never voted one time together in my eleven years here,” said Jones, referring to Representative Woolsey. “When I voted two years ago to submit the troops, I was making my decisions on facts. Since that time, I’ve been very disappointed on what I’ve learned about the justification of going into Iraq. Afghanistan, absolutely, we should be there. We should have more troops, but we can’t have more troops there when they’re in Iraq.”

There are no practical signs the U.S. is close to a withdrawal. The defense appropriation bill that the House just passed added an additional $45 billion to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which would bring the costs of the war to over $300 billion.

The House Republican leadership allowed just 30 minutes for debate on the amendment. Still, it was lively and at times emotional.

“I rise in strong opposition to this amendment,” said Representative Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), Chair of the House Armed Services Committee. “It’s a message-sender to people like al-Sadr who are fomenting rebellion against the elected government in Iraq. It’s a message sender to Zarqawi and his followers who think that the United States doesn’t have the stomach to continue to oppose them. The Iraqi people would feel that the American resolve was fading away.”

“What a great day this is … that Ms. Woolsey has now an amendment to develop a plan to provide for a withdrawal,” said Representative John Conyers (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

“Yet, here are the members of the House of Representative who, under Article I Section 8 of this great Constitution, are the only ones who can declare war, and they’re saying we don’t even want to talk about a plan. … Congress can talk about this. Please, summon up your courage, that’s your job.”

“I don’t think I have to question anybody to summon up my courage,” Representative Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) responded angrily. “I was shot down in Vietnam, and you do not tell the enemy what you are going to do because you put the troops at risk. I don’t want the 1,700 kids who have died in Iraq to have died for nothing.”

Representative Woolsey still has a long way to go in her efforts to turn Congress against the continued U.S. military presence in Iraq. Woolsey is the sponsor of another resolution calling for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq that has just 33 co-sponsors. So, the 128 representatives voting for her amendment calling on the president to create a withdrawal plan, despite its defeat, could be seen as progress.

“The way to end the insurgency is to remove the troops who are viewed as occupiers,” said Woolsey. “There is a group of us working on another piece of legislation that may be bipartisan. The sooner we can bring this type of legislation to the floor, the better off we’ll be.”