In an overwhelming show of bipartisan support for President Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan, the House on Wednesday soundly defeated a resolution setting a timetable for withdrawal.
The vote, which marked the first time the House has had a full debate on Afghanistan since Mr. Obama announced his surge last year, unleashed years of pent-up frustration from liberal Democrats and a few conservative Republicans angry over the direction the 9-year-old conflict has taken.
But the 356-65 vote against withdrawal was a dominant endorsement to give Mr. Obama the time he’s asked for to stabilize the troubled nation.
“Have we forgotten? Have we forgotten what happened to America on 9/11?” demanded Rep. Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee. “Have we forgotten who did it? Have we forgotten those who protected and gave them a safe haven?”
But Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat, who wrote the failed measure, said corrupt Afghan leaders don’t deserve the blood American troops are shedding, and that the money the U.S. is spending should instead be used at home.
“Should the United States people continue to bear the burdens of this war?” he said.
Late last year, Mr. Obama announced he was sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, but also announced he will begin withdrawing them in July 2011. Following on the success of President George W. Bush’s surge in Iraq, Mr. Obama said the goal was to give Afghanistan the breathing space to step up its own security forces and clean up government.
Mr. Kucinich’s resolution demanded a pullout within 30 days or, if Mr. Obama deemed that unsafe, would have set a hard deadline of the end of this year.
Democratic leaders allowed the resolution to come to the floor unfettered by parliamentary tactics as a signal of the importance they placed on the debate in an election year.
Just five Republicans and 60 Democrats voted for the withdrawal. They said they appreciated the forum, which gave them a chance to air grievances over Mr. Obama’s plans, over Mr. Bush’s original decision to go to war, and even over the American press coverage of the debate, which Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, Rhode Island Democrat, called “despicable” in its lack of depth.
He glanced up in the gallery overlooking the House and saw just two reporters inside, and said he was angry that reporters seemed more interested in seedy details of Rep. Eric Massa’s resignation than in this major debate.
He also took aim at Republicans who said passing the resolution would insult the memory of more than 1,000 U.S. troops who have lost their lives in Afghanistan.
“What is it we’re going to do? We’re going to double down on a bad policy to protect the honor of someone who’s died?” he said, speaking so strenuously that his voice at times cracked.
Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican, called it an “immoral war” and questioned why Afghanistan was a target in the first place. He said he’s seen no evidence that Osama bin Laden, the force behind al Qaeda, was responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and said the evidence he’s seen shows only slim ties between the hijackers and Afghanistan.
Mr. Paul also faulted the way the country went to war without a declaration by Congress. Instead, in 2001, Congress passed an authorization for the use of force.
“I tell you what the real problem is: It’s too easy to start a war,” Mr. Paul said.
The 2001 authorization passed by a 420-1 vote in the House with Rep. Barbara Lee, California Democrat, the lone “no” vote.
On Wednesday, she said time has proved her right.
“After a decade of open-ended war, I encourage my colleagues to stand firm in asserting their constitutional prerogatives,” she said.
At a time when bipartisan cooperation is tough to find in Congress, the strong show of support for Mr. Obama was stark.
Still, Republican leaders called the exercise a “waste of time,” and several said the vote came down to a decision between winning or retreating.
“This resolution could well be named ‘the retreat and abandonment of our military’ resolution,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, who served two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan as a Marine.
“It was worth it, because I know in my heart what we’re doing in Afghanistan is going to make my children not have to [go] over and fight the same Islamic fascists,” he said.
Traveling in Afghanistan on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said some of the troops involved in the surge could be withdrawn even before the July 2011 target, though he said those decisions would “be conditions-based,” the Associated Press reported.