Support is swiftly slipping for a symbolic measure to reclassify the World War I-era killing of ethnic Armenians as genocide as House members increasingly fear the real-world implications — for the U.S. relationship with Turkey and for American soldiers in Iraq.
Facing staunch opposition from the Bush administration, the Turkish government and their own colleagues on Capitol Hill, six Democrats and two Republicans withdrew their support from legislation this week officially designating the mass killings of 1.5 million ethnic Armenians during the breakup of the Ottoman Empire almost a century ago.
Top Democrats have joined the administration and Republican leaders to mobilize against the bill after the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved the measure last week in the face of bitter complaints by the Turkish government.
The committee vote prompted Turkey to withdraw its ambassador from the U.S. and threaten to ban the U.S. military from Turkish airspace and military installations that have become critical staging sites for military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also at risk: the administration’s negotiating leverage as Turkey threatens to launch raids against Kurdish militants in northern Iraq.
The Turkish Parliament is expected to approve a motion Wednesday allowing the government to order a cross-border attack over the next year — an action U.S. officials have warned could lead to catastrophic consequences in the war-ravaged nation.
House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) circulated a letter on Capitol Hill Tuesday urging Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) not to bring the bill to the floor.
In addition, a handful of prominent Democrats, led by Reps. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, Alcee L. Hastings of Florida, John Tanner of Tennessee, Robert Wexler of Florida and freshman Stephen I. Cohen of Tennessee, have scheduled a press conference Wednesday to make a similar case to their own leaders.
These public rebukes forced Democratic leaders to backpedal Tuesday.
Earlier in the day, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) conceded “many people are reversing their own positions” on the legislation while reiterating his commitment to schedule a floor vote on the bill before Congress wraps up its work for the year.
Later in the day, however, a Democratic leadership aide said Hoyer and Pelosi were reaching out to members in a bid to reverse some of the negative momentum and remain committed to bringing the bill up for a vote before the full House.
Their work appeared to be cut out for them, as members were clearly being swayed by the dire warnings coming from the administration and from Turkish officials.
“The timing could not be worse,” Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) said after withdrawing his name from the bill Monday night after years of supporting the legislation, which had previously been opposed by both Republican and Democratic presidents.
“They have been a great ally for the U.S. and NATO,” said Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.), who reversed his support for the measure in response to media coverage of the Turkish reaction.
“The timing for this resolution is not the best in the context of what is going on,” said Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. (D-Ga.). “I just don’t think it’s a good thing to anger an ally that is so crucial for the well-being of our troops.”
These defections, coupled with an aggressive outreach by the administration, have put additional pressure on those lawmakers who voted for the legislation last week.
“This is probably not the best time for this bill to come to the floor,” said Rep. Michael T. McCaul (R-Texas), who voted for the bill last week and remains inclined to vote for the legislation on the House floor. “The resolution, on its merits, is true. But they’re making the case that it’s a national security conern.”
Freshman Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) became the 18th member to withdraw his support for the bill on Tuesday, according to a Republican aide, bringing the total number of co-sponsors to fewer than 218 — which is usually the minimum threshold for passing legislation when Congress is at full strength.
“The fight is 10 times more intense this year,” acknowledged Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who authored the bill. “We had a tough fight on the committee. And we’ll have a tough fight on the House floor.”
Many supporters remain committed to the legislation despite heavy pressure from the administration and their own colleagues.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Republican Rep. Steve Chabot last week on the eve of the committee vote to urge him to reverse his stance on the legislation. But the Ohio congressman rebuffed her plea.
“She was very persuasive,” Chabot said. “But, ultimately, I wasn’t sent here by Condoleezza Rice, so I had to do what I thought was right and right for the people of my district.”
Rice has joined other administration officials from the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House to rally opposition to the bill.
The administration’s concerns are threefold:
• The most immediate fear is whether the legislation would undermine U.S. efforts in recent weeks to prevent the Turkish military from launching an attack inside Iraq to retaliate against Kurdish rebels operating along the border.
• The legislation could also create a major logistical headache for the Pentagon if Turkey bans access to its airspace and military bases, particularly the U.S. Air Force base at Incirlik, forcing military planners to use indirect air routes and extend ground convoys from Kuwait to supply troops in northern Iraq.
• And finally, on a broader, diplomatic level, frayed relations with Turkey, the United States’ largest moderate Muslim ally, would further damage U.S. standing in the Islamic world.
Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, suggested military officials could overcome the logistical complications, but the diplomatic backlash could be damaging.
“It would be nice to point to a Middle Eastern country where we have a respectful and productive relationship,” O’Hanlon said.
The House regularly revisits this issue every few years. Those votes rarely break along party lines, and lawmakers have shifted their positions from year to year.
In 2005, when Republicans still controlled the chamber,the Foreign Affairs Committee approved two versions of this legislation. Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen voted for both bills. But this year, as ranking Republican on the committee, she voted against the Schiff bill.
Even Foreign Affairs Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) has voted against the legislation in past years, while he supported the bill in committee last week.
According to testimony circulated by Republican aides Tuesday, Lantos, a Holocaust survivor, told his colleagues in 2000 that he opposed a similar measure because it would “be counterproductive to Turkish-U.S. relations” and would benefit then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
“There is always room for honoring and recognizing past tragedies,” Lantos told his colleagues during a committee hearing. “This piece of legislation, at this moment in U.S.-Turkish relations, is singularly counterproductive to our national interest.”
Then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) never brought that bill to the floor in 2000 after a last-minute plea by Bill Clinton, reneging on a pledge that eventually cost Rep. Jim Rogan (R-Calif.) his seat — to Schiff, the author of the current bill.