Turkish, Armenian groups step up lobbying efforts as key vote nears

Both sides in a contentious debate over a proposed genocide resolution are pumping up their grassroots campaigns in anticipation of a key congressional vote.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, recently announced that on March 4 his panel will mark up a non-binding resolution that recognizes the killing of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during World War I as genocide. That has set off a scramble in Washington as lobbyists for both sides coordinate lawmaker visits, gather signatures for petitions and rev up phone banks for what could be the last step before a House floor vote.

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Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, said he was “very confident” that the resolution would pass the committee and it has “very strong prospects for passage” on the House floor.

The resolution passed the House committee in 2007 by a close vote with 27 members voting for it, versus 21 voting against it. It does not have the same number of co-sponsors this time, though, with 137 lawmakers signing onto the bill so far compared to 212 by the end of last Congress.

Like last time, Turkish-American groups and the government of Turkey will lobby heavily against the resolution in Congress.

“This resolution is one-sided and ignores historical atrocities committed against those of Turkish descent during this turbulent period in history,” said G. Lincoln McCurdy, president of the Turkish Coalition of America. “The committee's choice to win quick political points with the Armenian-American lobby would surely be detrimental to the ongoing progress to bring peace between the peoples of Turkey and Armenia.”

The Turkish Embassy also has a roster of high-profile K Street talent ready to defeat the resolution, including former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), now at Dickstein Shapiro, and past House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.), at his own firm and PR giant Fleishman-Hillard.

Turkish officials have said that passing the resolution will hurt the national security interests of the United States since Turkey is a key ally of the U.S. military in the Middle East. That pressure ultimately forced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to withdraw the resolution from a floor vote in 2007. More recently, Turkish officals have said it could hamper the protocols Turkey reached with Armenia last year to reestablish relations between the two nations.

A big difference for the resolution this time on Capitol Hill will be the new administration. Veering from his promise during the presidential campaign, President Barack Obama has not called the massacre of Armenians a genocide. His administration has also come under increasing pressure from Armenian-American groups to not give Turkey free reign in the peace agreement it reached with Armenia last year.

But Hamparian believes the Obama administration will not mount the same lobbying effort against the resolution as the past White House did. In 2007, President George W. Bush made several public statements opposing the bill while high-ranking officials, such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, lobbied lawmakers to move against it as well.

Hamparian pointed to remarks recently made by Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon at a Feb. 1 press conference that the Turkish-Armenian peace accord needs to move forward “independently” of other issues, including the genocide resolution. Typically, the State Department has outright opposed the resolution under prior administrations.

“If Secretary Gordon’s statement reflects the view of this administration, we are not going to see the same strident opposition to the resolution as the Bush administration expressed,” Hamparian said.


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