Murtha won't sign petition on troop-withdrawal measure

Rep. John Murtha, the powerful Democratic defense appropriator from Pennsylvania, has never signed a discharge petition in his 32 years in Congress, and he refuses to bend, even if signing one means attracting more attention to the debate on the war in Iraq.

Murtha, the hawkish Vietnam veteran who voted for the war in Iraq, sent shockwaves by going public with his harsh criticism of the war last November, calling for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Murtha’s views attracted widespread attention in the media, but his stance polarized his own party and emboldened the House GOP to introduce a resolution calling for immediate troop withdrawal. Viewed as a political stunt in part meant to humiliate Democrats, the resolution sponsored by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, attracted only three Democratic votes.

In early December, Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) filed a motion to discharge the House Rules Committee from considering a resolution sponsored by Abercrombie and 67 other members that would require President Bush to develop and implement a plan for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

A discharge petition requires 218 signatures, a majority of the House’s 435 members, to bring the bill out of a committee and start debate on the House floor.

As of Thursday, Abercrombie’s discharge petition had gathered 106 signatures, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.); Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), ranking member of the International Relations Committee; and Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), ranking member of the Armed Services Committee.

But Murtha’s name is not alongside the other Democratic leaders.

In an interview, Murtha said he does not think it is appropriate to sign a discharge petition and disregard the committee process. He was also quick to point out that discharge petitions generally are not successful.

To get a majority, the petition needs some GOP signatures. Four Republicans have lent their names: Reps. Ron Paul (R-Texas), Walter Jones (R-N.C.), Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.) and Jim Leach (R-Iowa).

A congressional source said it is hard to get the signatures of centrist Democrats who do not want immediate withdrawal from Iraq but feel that change is needed in approaching the war. “Skelton is a great win in that respect,” the source said.

Murtha said there have been no repercussions for his outspoken criticism.

“Every place I go, I get a standing ovation,” he said. “The people are distressed about the direction this country is going, distressed about the arrogance of the administration.”

Abercrombie, the sponsor of the discharge petition, said that he would be delighted to have Murtha’s signature but that he understands why Murtha refuses to sign.

“I am not pushing it,” Abercrombie told The Hill.

He said there is a confluence of events taking place, including the retired generals calling for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation.

House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) last week told his colleagues that he plans to have a lengthy debate on the war in Iraq, in a dramatic change of course.

“If [the Republicans] end up offering something similar and commit to doing it, [some lawmakers] could declare victory on the petition,” a congressional source said. “If it is another stunt, people know the difference. If it is a good-faith effort, then the majority ends up doing the petition’s will.”

Meanwhile, Murtha said he believes that the war in Iraq has taken the United States away from focusing on the war on terrorism.

“I am trying to figure out a way to divert our attention to real terrorism,” he said.

He said that war appropriations cannot be cut as long as troops are still fighting in Iraq. But once they are out of Iraq, or their numbers are significantly reduced, the money could go toward rail and port security, Murtha added.

“One month of war spending would secure our ports,” he added.

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