WASHINGTON - The House began a heated debate Tuesday on President Bush's plan to send 21,500 additional combat troops to Iraq as Democrats pushed a resolution that would mark the strongest and most formal rebuke of the administration's conduct of the war.
The resolution crafted by the Democrats is a sparely worded measure stipulating that Congress supports the forces already serving in Iraq but disapproves of Bush's plan to send more U.S. troops into the conflict.
Previous attempts by Democrats to influence war policy, including bills calling for a phased withdrawal of troops and the cutting of war funding, have drawn little support. But this non-binding House resolution is expected to pass on Friday, adding momentum to the opposition against the administration's war policy.
"At the end of the debate, we will vote on a straightforward proposition: whether we support the president's plan or oppose it," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "That vote will signal whether the House has heard the message the American people have sent about this war. The current policies have not worked, will not work and must be changed."
Each of the 434 representatives and five non-voting delegates has been allotted five minutes of floor time for the debate, which will be Congress' most extensive discussion of the war since it began four years ago.
House Republicans pushed an alternate resolution that would have encouraged the White House to implement the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, including talks with Iran and Syria about Iraq. But the Democratic leadership turned away the Republican measure.
The resolution is short - fewer than 100 words - and is designed to attract support from Republicans, many of whom have expressed concern about the troop buildup. The House measure comes a little more than a week after Republicans blocked debate on a lengthier Senate resolution disapproving of the war.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he plans to call the House resolution for a vote in his chamber Feb. 27.
House Republicans complained that the Democrats were pushing the resolution through under a rule that bars any amendments or substitute language.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the resolution would embolden the terrorists. He also criticized the Democratic leadership for not giving the Bush plan a chance to work, and said the resolution was "a political charade lacking the seriousness or the gravity" of the situation it affects.
The troop buildup is being implemented in Iraq, with two extra brigades - one Iraqi and one U.S. - already deployed to Baghdad. The Iraqi brigade, however, has already proved to be plagued by high absenteeism.
Republican leaders were bracing themselves Tuesday as dozens of GOP House members are expected to break ranks and vote in favor of the resolution. The White House downplayed the significance of the resolution, although historians say congressional admonishment of a president during wartime may be unprecedented.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said, "Members of the House and members of the Senate have the freedom to go ahead and write their resolutions, and do what they want with them. We do expect those who say they're going to support the troops to support them."
Democrats have framed the resolution as part of their effort to reduce the involvement of U.S. forces in Iraq and to send a stern message to Iraqi leaders that they need to address serious problems plaguing their country. But it remains unclear what others steps the Democrats may take to try to stop Bush's troop buildup.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has introduced legislation calling for an immediate troop cap and withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops by March 2008. Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., has introduced legislation to cut funding, and a similar measure has been floated in the House.
But the Democratic leadership is wary of being seen as against the troops, and such legislation has gained little traction. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters Tuesday that the Democrats would not cut off troop funding.
But Democrats have discussed the possibility of attaching conditions to the supplemental appropriation for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, requiring changes in the conduct of the wars in exchange for continued funding.
In the first day of 36 hours of scheduled debate, supporters of the resolution accused the president of being misguided in escalating the war, while opponents derided the measure as meaningless and unhelpful to the troops in the field.
Both Democrats and Republicans stood on the House floor and told harrowing stories from constituents in their home districts to explain their reason for backing or opposing the symbolic resolution.
Rep. Peter King of New York, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, said the war in Iraq is part of the struggle against "militant Islamists" and referred to the hundreds of friends and constituents that died in the Sept. 11 attacks on New York.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., relayed a conversation he had with the mother of a soldier who was killed in a helicopter crash.
Republicans maintained that the Democrats were being shortsighted with the resolution.
"What if the `surge'... and our brave men and women in Iraq succeed?" asked Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind. "My Democratic colleagues would do well to reflect on this truth: The American people hate losers, but they hate quitters even more. If this new strategy in Iraq succeeds, what will my friends in the Democratic Party say?"