WASHINGTON (AP) — The House on Friday handily rejected a timetable for pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq, culminating a fiercely partisan debate between Republicans and Democrats feeling the public's apprehension about war and the onrushing midterm campaign season.
In a 256-153 vote that mirrored the position taken by the Senate earlier, the GOP-led House approved a nonbinding resolution that praises U.S. troops, labels the Iraq war part of the larger global fight against terrorism and says an "arbitrary date for the withdrawal or redeployment" of troops is not in the national interest.
"Retreat is not an option in Iraq," declared House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "Achieving victory is our only option... We have no choice but to confront these terrorists, win the war on terror and spread freedom and democracy around the world."
"Stay the course, I don't think so Mr. President. It's time to face the facts," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California answered, as she called for a new direction in the conflict. "The war in Iraq has been a mistake. I say, a grotesque mistake."
Four months before midterm elections that will decide control of Congress, House Republicans sought to force Republicans and Democrats alike to take a position on the conflict that began with the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in the spring of 2003.
Democrats denounced the debate and vote as a politically motivated charade, and most, including Pelosi, voted against the measure. They said that supporting it would have the effect of affirming Bush's "failed policy" in Iraq.
Balking carried a risk for Democrats, particularly when they see an opportunity to win back control of Congress from the GOP.
Republicans likely will use Democratic "no" votes to claim that their opponents don't support U.S. troops.
In fact, 42 Democrats broke ranks and joined with all but three Republicans to support the resolution. Two Republicans and three Democrats declined to take a position by voting present.
Republicans and Democrats alike explained the decision, as each side saw it, that voters have to make in November.
"The choice for the American people is clear; don't run in the face of danger, victory will be our exit strategy," Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said.
Countered Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa.: "It's not a matter of stay the course. It's a matter of change direction."
Some GOP incumbents who face tough challenges from Democrats in November issued qualified support for the measure while criticizing the GOP-led Congress.
"The American people are looking to us to answer their questions on how much progress is being made, what are the Iraqis themselves willing to do to fight for their freedom and when will our men and women come home," Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Pa., said before voting in favor of the resolution.
The House vote comes one day after the Senate soundly rejected a call to withdraw combat troops by year's end by shelving a proposal that would allow "only forces that are critical to completing the mission of standing up Iraqi security forces" to remain in Iraq in 2007.
That vote was 93-6, but Democrats assailed the GOP maneuver that led to the vote as political gamesmanship and promised further debate next week on a proposal to start redeploying troops this year.
Congress erupted in debate on the Iraq war four months before midterm elections that will decide the control of both the House and Senate, and as President Bush was trying to rebuild waning public support for the conflict.
The administration was so determined to get out its message that the Pentagon distributed a highly unusual 74-page "debate prep book" filled with ready-made answers for criticism of the war, which began in March 2003.
But as the death toll and price tag of the conflict continue to rise, opinion polls show voters increasingly frustrated with the war and favoring Democrats to control Congress instead of the Republicans who now run the show.
Sensitive to those political realities, Republicans in both the Senate and House sought to put lawmakers of both parties on record on an issue certain to be central in this fall's congressional elections.
The Senate vote unfolded unexpectedly as the second-ranking GOP leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., introduced legislation he said was taken from a proposal by Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat and war critic. It called for Bush to agree with the Iraqi government on a schedule for withdrawal of combat troops by Dec. 31, 2006.
Democratic leader Harry Reid sought to curtail floor debate on the proposal, and the vote occurred quickly. Six Democrats, including Kerry, were in the minority.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., predicted that terrorism would spread around the world, and eventually reach the United States if the United States were to "cut and run" before Iraq can defend itself.
But Reid, D-Nev., countered: "Two things that don't exist in Iraq and have not, weapons of mass destruction, and cutting and running."