House defeats effort to scale down Afghan war in close 204-215 vote

The House on Thursday narrowly shot down an amendment to scale back military operations in Afghanistan, highlighting growing congressional opposition to the war.

In a close 204-215 vote, the House rejected a bipartisan amendment from Reps. James McGovern (D-Mass.) and Justin Amash (R-Mich.) that would have required the Department of Defense (DOD) to develop a plan for an “accelerated transition of military operations to Afghan authorities.”

Twenty-six Republicans voted in favor of the accelerated transition, and all but eight Democrats supported the amendment, which supporters stressed was a plan to speed up the withdrawal, not an immediate requirement to withdraw forces.

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On a 123-294 vote, the House also rejected an amendment from Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) that would require the withdrawal of U.S. ground troops from Afghanistan and require DOD to submit a withdrawal plan to Congress 60 days after the measure becomes law.

Sixteen Republicans voted for this measure — twice as many as voted to remove troops in a 2010 vote that had previously been the high-water mark for Republican votes to pull troops from Afghanistan.

The votes come as the Obama administration faces increasing pressure to remove troops from Afghanistan. Polls show the war, nearly a decade old, is unpopular with voters. 

“I think this is a very, very strong vote, much stronger, quite frankly, than I thought we were going to get,” McGovern told The Hill. 

A similar measure won 162 votes last year when Democrats held the House, and McGovern initially had thought his amendment would win 180 to 185 votes. He said the result “shows there is a bipartisan angst that’s growing.”

As they watched the tally board approach 200, McGovern commented to his aide, “If we break 200, that would be spectacular.” 

Florida Rep. John Mica (R) voted against both amendments, but said he considered supporting them.

“I told them I could’ve [voted for it but] it wasn’t specific enough,” Mica said, adding that he’s “leaning toward getting” out of Afghanistan.

Mica believes that the sentiment of his conference is growing toward leaving Afghanistan, “and when somebody comes up with the right amendment, it’s going to pass.”

The administration said earlier this year that it plans to start withdrawing only 5,000 of the 100,000 troops in Afghanistan by this summer, far fewer than many had hoped.

In a separate vote on an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the House voted to prohibit the Obama administration from placing ground troops in Libya.

Members voted overwhelmingly in favor of an amendment from Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) that would prevent funds provided by the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) from being used to send ground troops into Libya. The Thursday vote follows a Wednesday voice vote to accept an amendment from Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) that says the NDAA does not authorize further military action in Libya.

The Garrett language addresses the growing complaint that the Obama administration has yet to seek congressional authorization to use force in Libya after a 60-day period, as mandated under the War Powers Act.

Obama has repeatedly ruled out the use of ground troops in Libya. On Wednesday, he again noted ground troops had been ruled out and said this had put a limitation on airstrike operations.

The NDAA itself was approved on a 322-96 vote.

Supporters of the Afghanistan amendment criticized that country’s government as disorganized and argued that the U.S. military presence can now be scaled back in light of Osama bin Laden’s death.

“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,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said. 

But opponents argued that the amendment would send the wrong signal to Afghanistan and disrupt the administration’s plan for a handover of operations to the Afghans in 2014. 

“This would pull the rug out from under that entire strategy,” Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) said.

Tempers flared Thursday on the Republican side after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she has told Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai that the U.S. wants the war to end. “Each time I go there, I say, ‘The American people are growing tired of war,’ ” Pelosi said on the floor.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) responded by saying it is not appropriate for Pelosi to be sending this message.

“It occurs to me, at a time when our government is wanting President Karzai to make difficult decisions, it is not particularly helpful for the minority leader go over there and tell him how tired we are,” he said. “Is that persuasive? Does that help him make the tough decisions to end corruption and to stand up the Afghan police? Somehow I don’t think so.”

Republicans voting for the Chaffetz amendment were Reps. Amash, Charlie Bass (N.H.), Dan Benishek (Mich.), John Campbell (Calif.), Chaffetz, Howard Coble (N.C.), John Duncan Jr. (Tenn.), Timothy Johnson (Ill.), Walter Jones (N.C.), Raul Labrador (Idaho), Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.), Mick Mulvaney (S.C.), Ron Paul (R-Texas), Bill Posey (Fla.), Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.) and Joe Walsh (Ill.).

McGovern said the strong showing for his bill should give Obama a way to present a “real” plan to withdraw troops from the war-torn region in July.

“I think there’s some wind at the president’s back to make a significant announcement in July to do more than announce a token drawdown of American forces,” McGovern said.

This story was posted at 1:41 p.m. and updated at 2:21 p.m. and again at 7:30 p.m.