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Uproar in House as Parties Clash on Iraq Pullout
By Eric Schmitt, The New York Times
Washington - Republicans and Democrats shouted, howled and slung insults on the House floor on Friday as a debate over whether to withdraw American troops from Iraq descended into a fury over President Bush's handling of the war and a leading Democrat's call to bring the troops home.
The battle boiled over when Representative Jean Schmidt, an Ohio Republican who is the most junior member of the House, told of a phone call she had just received from a Marine colonel back home.
"He asked me to send Congress a message: stay the course," Ms. Schmidt said. "He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message: that cowards cut and run, Marines never do."
Democrats booed in protest and shouted Ms. Schmidt down in her attack on Representative John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, a Vietnam combat veteran and one of the House's most respected members on military matters. They caused the House to come to an abrupt standstill, and moments later, Representative Harold Ford, Democrat of Tennessee, charged across the chamber's center aisle to the Republican side screaming that Ms. Schmidt's attack had been unwarranted.
"You guys are pathetic!" yelled Representative Martin Meehan, Democrat of Massachusetts. "Pathetic."
The measure to withdraw the troops failed in a 403-to-3 vote late Friday night.
The rancorous debate drew an extraordinary scolding from Senator John W. Warner, the Virginia Republican who heads the Armed Services Committee.
"Today's debate in the House of Representatives shows the need for bipartisanship on the war in Iraq, instead of more political posturing," Mr. Warner said in a statement.
But as the third hour of debate opened, with the House chamber mostly full on the eve of the Thanksgiving recess, even two senior Republicans, Henry Hyde of Illinois and Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania, tried to temper the personal nature of the confrontation by offering tributes to Mr. Murtha. "I give him an A-plus as a truly great American," Mr. Hyde said.
Then Mr. Murtha, who normally shuns publicity, gave an impassioned 15-minute plea for his plan to withdraw American troops, who he said had become "a catalyst for violence" in Iraq. The American people, Mr. Murtha thundered, are "thirsty for some direction; they're thirsty for a solution to this problem."
The uproar followed days of mounting tension between Republicans and Democrats in which the political debate over the war sharply intensified. With Mr. Bush's popularity dropping in the polls, Democrats have sought anew to portray him as having exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq before the American invasion in 2003. Republicans have countered that Democrats were equally at fault.
The battle came as Democrats accused Republicans of pulling a political stunt by moving toward a vote on a symbolic alternative to the resolution that Mr. Murtha offered on Thursday, calling for the swift withdrawal of American troops. Democrats said the ploy distorted the meaning of Mr. Murtha's measure and left little time for meaningful debate.
Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, denied that there were any political tricks involved and said pulling forces out of Iraq so rashly would hurt troop morale overseas. "We want to make sure that we support our troops that are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.
The measure's fate was sealed - and the vote count's significance minimized - when the Democratic leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, criticized the Republican tactics and instructed Democrats to join Republicans in voting against an immediate withdrawal.
"Just when you thought you'd seen it all, the Republicans have stooped to new lows, even for them," said Ms. Pelosi, who assailed Republicans as impugning Mr. Murtha's patriotism.
The parliamentary maneuvering came amid more than three hours of often nasty floor debate and boisterous political theater, with Democrats accusing Republicans of resorting to desperate tactics to back a failed war and Republicans warning that Mr. Murtha's measure would play into the hands of terrorists.
In South Korea, where Mr. Bush was in the final day of the Asian economic summit, the White House released the text of a speech that he is scheduled to make later on Saturday to American forces at Osan Air Base.
"In Washington there are some who say that the sacrifice is too great, and they urge us to set a date for withdrawal before we have completed our mission," Mr. Bush planned to say, keeping up the daily drumbeat of White House response from 7,000 miles away. "Those who are in the fight know better. One of our top commanders in Iraq, Maj. Gen. William Webster, says that setting a deadline for our withdrawal from Iraq would be, quote, 'a recipe for disaster.' "
"General Webster is right," Mr. Bush's text said. "And so long as I am commander in chief, our strategy in Iraq will be driven by the sober judgment of our military commanders on the ground."
On Thursday, Mr. Murtha called for pulling out the 153,000 American troops within six months, saying they had become a catalyst for the continuing violence in Iraq. His plan also called for a quick-reaction force in the region, perhaps based in Kuwait, and for pursuing stability in Iraq through diplomacy.
But House Republicans planned to put to a vote - and reject - their own nonbinding alternative resolution that simply said: "It is the sense of the House of Representatives that the deployment of United States forces in Iraq be terminated immediately."
Democrats denounced the Republican measure as a fraud. But Democrats privately acknowledged that they were seeking to escape a political trap set by the Republicans to box them into an unappealing choice: side with Mr. Murtha and face criticism for backing a plan that American commanders say would cripple the mission in Iraq or oppose their respected colleague and blunt momentum for an overhaul of the administration's Iraq policy.
House Democrats greeted Mr. Murtha with a standing ovation on Friday as he entered the chamber.
"This is a personal attack on one of the best members, one of the most respected members of this House, and it is outrageous," said Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts.
While some 70 liberal Democrats who support ending American military involvement in Iraq have praised Mr. Murtha's plan, many of his other party colleagues appeared to harbor doubts. To a member, Democrats said they respected the counsel of Mr. Murtha, a retired Marine colonel who has earned bipartisan respect in his three decades in Congress as a champion of American service members.
But many senior House Democrats, including Ms. Pelosi, have distanced themselves from Mr. Murtha's resolution, saying a phased withdrawal is a more prudent course. The House debate is likely to stoke an intensifying partisan debate on Capitol Hill over the administration's handling of the war, including how it used prewar intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq.
Democrats, including Senators Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, as well as Representative Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, defended Mr. Murtha and gave examples of what they said were faulty intelligence.
The House action comes just days after the Republican-controlled Senate defeated a Democratic push to have Mr. Bush describe a timetable for withdrawal. Underscoring unease by both parties about the war, though, the Senate then approved a Republican statement that 2006 should be a year in which conditions were created for the Iraqi government to take over more security duties in the country and allow the United States to begin withdrawing.
Even as Republicans sought to make political hay from Mr. Murtha's plan, Democrats defended him as a patriot.
"I won't stand for the Swift-boating of Jack Murtha," said Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004. Mr. Kerry, who is also a Vietnam veteran, was dogged during the campaign by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that challenged his war record.