WASHINGTON — Democrats in House of Representatives sent President Barack Obama a strong message Thursday — speed up U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.
Though the House's bid to push Obama to expedite the U.S. exit failed, it lost by a surprisingly close 215-204 vote. The outcome, and the fiery debate that preceded it, made it clear that the president's party, as well as a growing number of Republicans, is growing impatient with the almost 10-year-old war as the 2012 election campaign approaches.
In all, 178 Democrats and 26 Republicans voted to pressure Obama. Eight Democrats, most from more conservative districts, and 207 Republicans were opposed.
Leading the charge to prod the president were the House's top Democratic leaders.
"Americans are paying a big price there, we want to make sure we’re getting a return on that investment, and time is a very important factor,” said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “It’s time for our troops to come home.”
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., regarded as a barometer of centrist Democratic sentiment, insisted that because of the killing of Osama bin Laden earlier this month, the stakes have changed.
"His death is a moment for reflection on that struggle (in Afghanistan), and how we can best equip ourselves to win it. Many of the terrorists against which we are fighting are no longer located in Afghanistan, but are in disparate locations, from Yemen to Somalia to Southeast Asia. And bin Laden was found in Pakistan," Hoyer said.
Obama plans to withdraw an unspecified number of troops from Afghanistan beginning in July, but only a small fraction of the 100,000 troops are expected to leave. Obama has said he wants most of the rest out by 2014, but he has been vague about details.
Voters are clearly tired of the war, polls show, and while anti-war Democrats are unlikely to challenge Obama's bid for the 2012 Democratic nomination, their unease with his Afghanistan policy could translate into less enthusiasm, and therefore less willingness to work on his behalf.
No lawmakers said that publicly Thursday, but Democrats made it clear they want Obama to act more boldly.
"Too many people have died in Afghanistan. There is no clear mission," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., the measure's chief sponsor. "We need to rethink what we're doing in Afghanistan. It's no longer about al Qaida."
The expedited withdrawal plan would have required the president to come up with a specific time frame for "accelerated transition of military operations to Afghan authorities."
Obama would have had 60 days to give Congress a plan with a timetable, to "conclude negotiations leading to a political settlement" in Afghanistan. The talks would have to involve the Afghanistan government and "all interested parties within Afghanistan," which presumably would include the Taliban insurgents.
Within 90 days of enactment, U.S. intelligence officials would have had to report to Obama on the "leadership, locations and capabilities of al Qaida and its affiliated networks and cells."
Most opposition to the plan Thursday came from Republicans concerned about tying the commander-in-chief's hands.
“It is always tempting to say we ought to have a plan, but I think the purpose of this amendment is clear: It’s to drive us out of Afghanistan on an accelerated timeframe without regard for conditions on the ground,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.
“That is not only a mistake in strategy, and detrimental to our security interests, it actually increases the danger to our troops and coalition troops as well."
But other Republicans formed one key bloc of opposition. They were angry at the money being spent on the war _ about $10 billion a month _at a time when the federal deficit is expected to reach $1.5 trillion this year. And they want a more clearly defined mission.
"The American people are tired and fed up," said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C
“After 10 years of war, people are ready to bring troops home. It’s not cutting and running, it’s the longest war in the history of the United States, for goodness sake," added Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.
Democratic liberals formed another opposition group; they’ve long sought to either end the war or dramatically curb the mission.
"It's a message to the president that members want a significant drawdown, and this helps get us to that point," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. "This has been building for a long time."
But the pivotal bloc was those aligned with the party leaders, many of whom have stood behind Obama for years.
The McGovern plan "strikes an important balance between the need to move on and giving the president discretion," said Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J.
"I have no doubt that President Obama and every member of this House believes that their very first duty is to keep our nation safe," added Hoyer. But, he said, "We must constantly challenge one another and our nation to fight smarter and harder, to ensure victory in this broader struggle."
(Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.)
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