Pelosi and her misstep
Oct. 19 (Bloomberg) -- The two meetings House Speaker Nancy Pelosi attended before a vote on a resolution labeling the massacre of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey a genocide foreshadowed the biggest political misstep of her speakership.
In the hours before a House panel approved the resolution Oct. 10, Pelosi was told in a tense meeting with Turkey's ambassador that the vote would endanger his country's alliance with the U.S. She had a warmer session with an Armenian cleric and representatives of Armenian-Americans, who have a large presence in her home state of California. In both, she made clear she intended to bring the resolution to a full House vote.
Since then, Pelosi, 67, has been in retreat. Her vow to bring the measure to a vote outraged Turkey, which recalled its ambassador and threatened to cut off the use of its military bases to resupply U.S. troops in Iraq. On Oct. 17, Pelosi said it ``remains to be seen'' whether the vote would occur after more than a dozen lawmakers pulled their names from the measure and some Democrats asked her to drop it.
``It's a good resolution but a horrible time to be considering it on the House floor,'' said Representative Mike Ross of Arkansas, one of the Democrats who withdrew his support.
``She dug in her heels to find that she didn't have her members with her,'' said Representative Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican. ``If you get too far out in front of them, it can be embarrassing.''
The turnaround is the first major failure for Pelosi, who has successfully muscled through the agenda she set out when she became leader of the Democratic majority in January. This year, the House has passed a measure calling for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, a minimum-wage increase, a five-year farm bill and a $35 billion expansion of health coverage for children.
Until now, her biggest obstacles had been President George W. Bush's veto power -- which he used this month to block the children's health-care measure -- and the inability of Senate Democratic leaders to overcome Republican opposition.
The controversy also handed Bush and House Republicans an opening to attack Pelosi's foreign-policy credentials. ``Congress has more important work to do than antagonizing a democratic ally in the Muslim world, especially one that's providing vital support for our military every day,'' Bush said Oct. 17.
Some Democrats say Pelosi couldn't have anticipated the backlash. Yet Representative Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania, one of her closest allies, said he had warned her in February that the resolution could erode U.S. support in the Middle East. ``This is not a way to help us in an area where we need allies,'' Murtha said.
Pelosi said Oct. 11 that she decided to advance the legislation because the U.S. has a moral obligation to take a stand and declare the World War I-era killings of 1.5 million Armenians genocide.
``There's never a good time,'' Pelosi said, adding that the entire Democratic leadership team, and a bipartisan coalition comprising most of the House's 435 members, supported it.
The reaction was swift. One day after the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved the resolution, 27-21, Turkey withdrew its ambassador for consultations, and Turkish legislators on Oct. 17 authorized the use of military force against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, a step that may further destabilize Iraq and disrupt oil supplies.
Pelosi said Turkey may be using the resolution to justify taking action in Iraq. ``This is about Turkey's plans,'' she said. ``This isn't about our resolution.''
The legislation, which has been introduced for decades, often originates from California lawmakers, said John Pitney, a political science professor with Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. About 232,000 Armenian Americans live in the state, 54 percent of the U.S. total, according to 2006 Census data. ``Home-state politics is a large portion of it,'' Pitney said.
This year's resolution was co-sponsored by California Democrat Adam Schiff and Pelosi has said she promised him and other supporters that they would get a vote if the measure was approved by committee.
When it was approved in committee last week, the resolution had 226 co-sponsors, more that the 218 needed to pass. But by yesterday, more than 12 co-sponsors had withdrawn their support.
This week, Pelosi backed away from her pledge to advance the bill this year, saying it would be up to its sponsors to decide whether it comes up for a vote. Schiff said he would ask her to bring the measure to the floor only if he has enough votes to win.
Murtha said he is working to persuade Pelosi to drop the matter, and that as many as 60 Democrats would oppose the resolution and it would fail any vote of the full House.
``It's impractical at this point to go forward with it,'' Murtha said.
The dispute has cost Pelosi some credibility, Pitney said. ``This is proving to be a lesson to the leadership to think through the long-term consequences,'' he said. ``There's a great deal of difference between taking positions in the minority and moving legislation in the majority.''