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Legislation is rare rebuke of war during combat
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WASHINGTON — Anti-war legislation on the way to President Bush for his promised veto represents a rare rebuke by Congress of a large and ongoing ground conflict.
While a bill ordering troops home from an ongoing military mission is not unprecedented — legislation aimed at conflicts in Somalia and Haiti are other examples — the Iraq bill is an unusually swift feat by a Congress forcefully challenging a war involving thousands of U.S. troops.
“Congress is not shy usually about attempting to create problems for a president when a war becomes unpopular,” said Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian and professor at Boston University. “But I think the significance here is that in a big war, they were able to at least get the legislation to the president’s desk pretty early from a historical perspective.”
Congress’ role in Iraq policy has dominated Capitol Hill since Democrats regained the majority in January, a change in party control due in large part to voter frustration with the war.
The war is in its fifth year, with more than 3,300 troops dead and tens of thousands more wounded. Tuesday was the fourth anniversary of Bush’s May 1, 2003, “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, in which he declared, “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”
Last week, Democrats said they were acting on a mandate by voters when they passed the legislation, which calls for troops to begin leaving Iraq by Oct. 1. Lawmakers are expected to fall short of the two-thirds majority to override a veto.
But Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who heads a House subcommittee that controls defense spending, said a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq is inevitable.
“The American people want them out. The Iraqis want them out. The world wants us out of Iraq, and it’s going to happen,” Murtha said Tuesday. “The president better plan for redeployment or he’s going to have the kind of chaos he’s predicting.”
The passage of the legislation in many ways surpasses congressional efforts to end the Vietnam War, a longer and deadlier war for U.S. forces. Congress went years before it was able to agree on legislation challenging presidential war policy, holding some 94 roll call votes on the war between 1966 and 1972, according to data provided by the Senate Historian office.
By the time legislation cutting off funds for the war went into effect in 1973, the U.S. military mission was already over.
Republicans have stood by Bush in denouncing a timetable on Iraq, although their opposition to setting an end date to an ongoing war hasn’t always been the case.
In 1993, Sen. John McCain led an effort to cut off funds immediately for military operations in Somalia after a firefight in Mogadishu killed 18 U.S. troops. The former prisoner of war in Vietnam brought a hush to the chamber floor when he asked what would happen if Congress failed to act and more Americans died.
Congress ultimately agreed to back President Clinton’s request to give him until March 1994 to get troops out, with funding denied after that date. In 1999, Congress passed similar legislation prohibiting money spent to keep U.S. troops in Haiti after May 2000.
“When Americans are imperiled, ultimately the president has to bear that responsibility,” Clinton said at the time of the Somalia vote.
Now, McCain — a GOP presidential contender for 2008 — says setting a date certain on the war in Iraq is like sending a “memo to our enemies to let them know when they can operate again.”
Matt David, McCain’s campaign spokesman, said it is “intellectually dishonest” to compare Iraq to Haiti and Somalia because of the volatility now in the Middle East and terrorist threat.
“Haitians and Somalians do not want to follow us home and attack us on American soil,” David said in a statement.
William Howell, a war powers expert and associate professor at the University of Chicago, said whatever the historical significance of last week’s vote, Democrats have gained considerable traction in opposing a wartime president because of the war’s unpopularity.
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