WASHINGTON — House Republicans maneuvered for swift rejection Friday of any notion of immediately pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, sparking a nasty, sometimes personal debate over the war following a Democratic lawmaker's own call for withdrawal.
Just a day after Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., stoked a surging political fire over President Bush's Iraq policies by proposing that troops return home now, Republicans brought a measure to the House floor urging that a pullout begin immediately.
The symbolic vote was intended to fail, and furious Democrats accused the GOP of orchestrating a political stunt.
"A disgrace," declared House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "The rankest of politics and the absence of any sense of shame," added Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat.
Republicans hoped to place Democrats in an unappealing position — either supporting a withdrawal that critics said would be precipitous or opposing it and angering voters who want an end to the conflict. They also hoped the vote could restore GOP momentum on an issue — the war — that has seen plummeting public support in recent weeks.
"We want to make sure that we support our troops that are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. We will not retreat," Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said of the nonbinding resolution.
Democrats claimed Republicans were changing the meaning of Murtha's withdrawal proposal. He has said a smooth withdrawal would take six months. Democrats said they planned to counter by voting against the GOP provision en masse.
At one point in the emotional debate, Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, told of a phone call she received from a Marine colonel.
"He asked me to send Congress a message — stay the course. He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message — that cowards cut and run, Marines never do," Schmidt said. Murtha is a 37-year Marine veteran.
Democrats booed and shouted her down — causing the House to come to a standstill.
Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., charged across the chamber's center aisle screaming that Republicans were making uncalled-for personal attacks. "You guys are pathetic! Pathetic!" yelled Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass.
Democrats gave Murtha, a decorated Vietnam War veteran with close ties to the military, a standing ovation as he entered the chamber and took his customary corner seat.
The fireworks, as lawmakers rushed toward a two-week Thanksgiving break, came just days after the GOP-controlled Senate defeated a Democratic push for Bush to lay out a timetable for withdrawal. Spotlighting questions from both parties about the war, senators approved a statement that 2006 should be a significant year in which conditions are created for the phased withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Murtha has proposed his own resolution that would force the president to withdraw the nearly 160,000 troops in Iraq "at the earliest practicable date." It would establish a quick-reaction force and a nearby presence of Marines in the region. It also said the U.S. must pursue stability in Iraq through diplomacy.
The Republican alternative simply said: "It is the sense of the House of Representatives that the deployment of United States forces in Iraq be terminated immediately."
"It's a pathetic, partisan, political ploy," said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. Added Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif.: "It's just heinous."
"This is a personal attack on one of the best members, one of the most respected members of this House and it is outrageous," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, however, said the resolution vote was not a stunt. "This is not an attack on an individual. This is a legitimate question."
"They've been itching for a fight for a long time," Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said of the Democrats.
Bush, traveling in Asia, also fired back at his critics, saying a troop withdrawal would be "a recipe for disaster."
Most Republicans oppose Murtha's call for withdrawal, and some Democrats also have been reluctant to back his position.
Aware of the scene unfolding across Capitol Hill, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, appealed for "bipartisanship on the war in Iraq, instead of more political posturing."
A growing number of House members and senators, looking ahead to off-year elections next November, are publicly worrying about a quagmire in Iraq. They have been staking out new positions on a war that is increasingly unpopular with the American public, has resulted in more than 2,000 U.S. military deaths and has cost more than $200 billion.
"Our troops have become the primary target of the insurgency," Murtha said Thursday. "They are united against U.S. forces and we have become a catalyst for violence. The war in Iraq is not going as advertised. It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion."
A U.S. field commander in Iraq countered the position of the congressman who usually backs the Pentagon.
"Here on the ground, our job is not done," said Col. James Brown, commander of the 56th Brigade Combat Team, when asked about Murtha's comments during a weekly briefing that American field commanders give to Pentagon reporters.