Washington An odd coalition of angry Republicans and antiwar Democrats Thursday torpedoed a $162.5 billion proposal to continue funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving the House to pass a measure that demands troop withdrawals, bans torture and expands education benefits for returning veterans.
The surprise action left antiwar activists on and off Capitol Hill exultant, Republicans gloating and Democratic leaders baffled. Recriminations from all sides quickly followed.
House leaders had broken the war funding bill into three separate measures. The first, to continue funding combat operations, needed Republican votes to pass over the objection of antiwar Democrats. The second would impose strict Iraq-related policy measures strongly opposed by President Bush, and the third would fund domestic priorities, including a new G.I. Bill and levees around New Orleans.
That legislative legerdemain became the plan's undoing. Rather than go along, 131 House Republicans voted "present" on the war-funding provision, saying they were incensed that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and a few of her lieutenants had drafted the bill in secret, then expected them to play along.
"It was a political scheme. We wanted to expose it, and we did," declared House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Democrats saw it differently. "Republicans had the choice - fund the troops or don't fund the troops. They voted present," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
"You can't say something is the critical battle of our time and vote present," said Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois. "Explain that to the troops."
The strange conclusion to the day-long war debate may not help a Congress mired in record-low approval ratings and a House GOP that is reeling from internal dissension and three straight losses in special elections in reliably Republican districts.
But the impact is likely to be short-lived. The Senate will take up its version of the war-funding bill next week; it is expected to restore the war funds and strip out the policy prescriptions most disagreeable to the White House.
The White House reiterated its veto threat of the overall package Thursday morning, demanding a new version stripped of policy prescriptions and domestic spending, including the bill's $52 billion expansion of veterans' education benefits. The supplemental appropriations vote is the last major clash on Iraq policy between Congress and Bush.