WASHINGTON — The House debate on a nonbinding resolution opposing President Bush's troop buildup in Iraq opened rifts in Republican ranks, as lawmakers were forced to take a tough vote on the war.
But the next move – to curb war funding – could do the same for Democrats, if not handled with a high level of political skill.
Such a rift is what Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania hopes to avoid, as he announced Thursday details of a strategy to use his Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense to oppose a troop buildup in Iraq, without cutting funds to troops in harm's way.
"What we're saying will be very hard to find fault with," said Mr. Murtha in a webcast on the antiwar site MoveCongress.org. "We're supporting the troops. We're protecting the troops. But on the other hand, we're going to stop this escalation, because this escalation is not going to work."
The interview confirmed a line of action that Murtha and House Democrats have signaled for weeks. Instead of cutting off the funds, Murtha is proposing conditions on the use of funds that would limit the president's military options.
In mid-March, the House Appropriations Committee plans to take up Mr. Bush's $99.6 billion supplemental war request for this fiscal year. Murtha's panel plans to complete its hearings and report to the full committee by March 14, he says. The bill would be on the floor a few days later, he adds.
Any vote that appears to undermine US forces in the field is potentially toxic for members on either side of the aisle. That's why Republicans tried – and failed – to force a recorded vote on war funding in the House this week.
On the Senate side, GOP leaders had calculated that Democrats would cave if forced to vote on war funding – a vote that would have diminished the impact of a resolution opposing the "surge." The impasse derailed a vote on either measure in the Senate.
"That's the bind the House and Senate find themselves in," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
"[Lawmakers] can easily support resolutions critical of the troop surge, but when they take the next step, which is to do something about the funding of the war, they venture into political quicksand, unless what they are doing is phrased in such political delicacy that it can't be interpreted as a vote against the troops," he adds.
Antiwar activists have held back as the House moved toward a nonbinding vote this week. But they are watching closely how forcefully Democrats who now control Congress follow up a resolution victory in the House.
"To debate for a week and end up with a nonbinding vote on just the escalation has people nervous," says Tom Andrews, national director of Win Without War and a former Democratic representative from Maine. People are anxious to see that this leads to real action, as soon as possible, he says.
Murtha, for one, is proposing several conditions on the use of war funding. These include requiring the military to certify that troops are "fully combat ready," with the training and equipment that they need. He is also proposing an end to the "stop loss" program, which has forced soldiers to extend their enlistment period, and to ensure that a serviceman or servicewoman can't be sent back into battle until he or she has had a year at home.
These are "technical things," Murtha says, but they are "very harmful to the people who are serving." If Congress insists on enforcing these conditions, it means that the "the surge can't be sustained," he adds. In the longer term, it will force the president to deploy troops outside Iraq, he says.