Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Republican who initiated last week’s overwhelming House vote to keep U.S. troops in Iraq said he will do it again if Democrats don’t cease their calls for withdrawal.

“If they start this again, we’ll call the vote again,” said Rep. J.D. Hayworth, Arizona Republican, whom members credited with suggesting holding a vote. “As far as I’m concerned, if they haven’t learned from this, if they go back to this cheap talk, I would be more than happy to call for another vote.”

Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, said Thursday that the U.S. should start withdrawing from Iraq, but the House voted 403-3 the next day to reject immediate withdrawal. Republicans say the vote both bolstered the troops’ mission and recaptured the political momentum on the issue.

Yesterday, several top Democrats came out opposed to Mr. Murtha’s call, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York saying it would be “a big mistake” and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware saying he is “not there yet.”

Mrs. Clinton said withdrawing and leaving a failed state in Iraq would “cause more problems for us in America,” though the Associated Press also reported that she said the Bush administration’s plan to stay “until the job is done” has meant that the Iraqis lack an incentive to take control.

Her comments came five days after her husband, former President Bill Clinton, told students in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, that the U.S. made a “big mistake” by invading Iraq. Mr. Clinton did not weigh in on the wisdom of an immediate pullout.

The 403-3 vote was on a nonbinding resolution that called for immediate withdrawal. Mr. Murtha had proposed immediately starting a withdrawal, which would take about six months.

Earlier in the week, the Senate voted 58-40 to reject calling for a timetable for withdrawal, but the chamber then voted 79-19 to demand that the administration at least provide a schedule for Iraq to complete the transition to sovereignty.

Democrats said it’s not clear what message came out of the House vote, because the Republican resolution was not the same as Mr. Murtha’s resolution.

“The Republican leadership did a masterful job of manipulating and distorting Representative Murtha’s vote, somewhat similar to what we saw with the administration’s manipulation of intelligence with the case they used to justify the war,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.

And Democrats said last week’s vote doesn’t erase the debate Mr. Murtha started.

“Everyone agrees what the president is doing is not working and we need to change direction in Iraq,” said Brendan Daly, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, who said the question is not about whether to withdraw, but rather when and how.

“I think for a lot of Democrats that’s the debate — over what time period and what benchmarks you have,” he said.

Rep. Robert Wexler, Florida Democrat and one of three to vote for immediate withdrawal, said that given the choice between endorsing current policy and voting “no confidence” in the president, he chose the latter.

“His three-year, carte blanche authority in Iraq must come to an end,” Mr. Wexler said. “The American people have lost confidence in President Bush’s ability as commander in chief, and his flawed policies have failed to bring stability and security to Iraq.”

Republicans said the vote was necessary to force the issue.

“Republicans succeeded in calling the Democrats’ bluff by forcing them to go on the record against their rhetoric of retreat and defeat,” said Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican. “Any attempt by the other side to downplay it will look hypocritical in the eyes of those who support U.S. troops fighting in Iraq.”

And Mr. Hayworth said the signal to U.S. troops was worth it.

“The Washington Post, the New York Times and Al Jazeera all reported [Mr. Murtha] called for immediate withdrawal. I thought by Saturday morning seeing in Al Jazeera that the U.S. House overwhelmingly rejects calls for withdrawal is the message we needed to send,” Mr. Hayworth said.

He proposed the idea at the House Republican Conference meeting Friday morning.

A Republican aide said the final decision to go ahead was made that afternoon at a meeting, in which top House Republican leaders and committee chairmen decided something had to be done.

“The message out of that meeting was either we play offense or we play defense. And right now we need to play offense,” the aide said. “It stopped the momentum the Democrats were trying to generate.”

• Bill Sammon contributed to this report.

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