In the end, the leaked WikiLeaks documents barely made a dent in Congress’s decision to continue funding a surge of US forces into Afghanistan. The measure passed the House 308 to 114, with 148 Democrats and 160 Republicans voting in favor.
The margin surprised leaders in both parties, who had expected more fallout from Sunday’s release of some 92,000 classified documents that amplified the difficulties of the nine-year war in Afghanistan.
House Republican leader John Boehner urged his caucus to back the war funding bill, despite the controversy over the leaked documents, which could have given the minority party cover to vote no. “We could have played politics with this vote and forced Democrats to come up with the votes. But our leadership told us to play it straight. We did the right thing,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, after the vote Tuesday.
With antiwar sentiment running high in the House Democratic Caucus, majority leader Steny Hoyer urged his colleagues to take up doubts on the war in a separate debate at another time. The need for funds was too urgent to risk defeating the war-funding bill, he said.
“I think the president of the United States made a mission that is a doable mission,” he told reporters in a briefing on Tuesday. “Now, we may want to reconsider that in a new Congress. But the fact is those troops are there now, and the money, as we have been told by the Pentagon, will be depleted as of the 7th of August.”
Still, the vote was wrenching for antiwar Democrats. Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, had added $10 billion to help prevent teacher layoffs as a sweetener to other Democrats with doubts about the war. But the Senate voted to strip most of the additional domestic spending. On Tuesday, Representative Obey told House members that he was bringing the war-funding bill to the floor with reluctance.
”I have a double, and conflicting, obligation. As chairman, I have the obligation to bring this supplemental before the House to allow the institution to work its will,” he said on the floor Tuesday. “But I also have the obligation to my conscience to indicate – by my individual vote – my profound skepticism that this action will accomplish much more than to serve as a recruiting incentive for those who most want to do us ill.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not whip this vote, calling it a vote of conscience and the most difficult vote she has taken to the floor since becoming speaker in 2007.
On July 1, 162 House members, including Speaker Pelosi, voted to support the McGovern-Obey-Jones amendment to the House version of the bill, calling for a timetable and plan for the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan.
“In light of [the WikiLeaks documents released after that], in light of all the questions that have been raised, it seems to me that it is inappropriate for us to vote yes for a blank check for this administration to do what it wants on Afghanistan,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D) of Massachusetts, a sponsor of the amendment, during Tuesday’s floor debate.
Twelve Republicans and 102 Democrats voted against the war-funding measure.
Also on Tuesday, the House overwhelmingly rejected a privileged resolution (not requiring leadership to take to the floor) introduced by Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio and Ron Paul (R) of Texas to direct President Obama to remove US forces from Pakistan. The sponsors cited the WikiLeaks report as evidence that the US presence in Afghanistan is counterproductive and that Pakistan is an unreliable ally. The vote failed 38 to 372.
“The Democrats realize that Afghanistan is now President Obama’s war, and it will take a lot for them to be critical of the war or take any kind of action that threatens the funding,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. “But as we learn more about these [WikiLeaks] documents and the war, it is going to get more difficult for Democrats to contain this information.”