WASHINGTON — The long struggle over formal U.S. recognition that the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks was a genocide reached a turning point Wednesday, with a House committee calling on the president to "accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians as genocide."
A divided House Foreign Affairs Committee approved the emotionally charged measure, despite fierce lobbying by Turkey and President Bush, who sternly warned that it would offend an important ally and harm U.S. security interests.
Armenian groups in the United States have pressed for the resolution, while Turkish politicians have threatened to retaliate -- which could mean cutting off U.S. access to a crucial Turkish air base that is used to supply U.S. troops in Iraq.
The bipartisan 27-21 vote came in a packed room that included four survivors of the World War I-era genocide, three in their 90s and one who was 102. "Somebody's got to speak for the people I see in front of me," Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) said in urging the resolution's passage.
Congress has wrestled for years with the issue, which has been closely watched by Armenian Americans, many of whom live in California. This year, the resolution, which does not have to be approved by the president, appears to stand its best chance of passing.
The resolution has 225 cosponsors in the House -- more than a majority and the most support it has ever received, according to its chief sponsor, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank). Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who became House speaker with the Democratic takeover of Congress this year, has long championed the issue.
The bill faces a tougher time in the Senate. It has the support of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), but it has drawn just 32 cosponsors, well short of the votes needed to pass.
Schiff called the lobbying by the White House and Turkey the "most intensive legislative fight" he had ever been in. Still, he said, "The truth sometimes wins, and it won today."
The Turkish government disputes that a genocide took place, contending that during and after the First World War, Armenians as well as Turks were casualties of the war, famine and disease. But historical evidence and authoritative research support the term, and The Times' policy is to refer to the deaths as genocide.
Opponents of the measure warned that it could threaten U.S. interests in the Middle East, endangering U.S. military supplies that pass through Incirlik air base near the southern Turkish city of Adana on their way to American troops in Iraq. Turkey is one of the United States' most important allies in the Muslim world.
"We're talking about kicking the one ally that's helping us over there in the face right now," said Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.). "It just doesn't make any sense to me."
Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) said that "America can ill-afford to lose the support of an ally as important as Turkey at this critical juncture."
But Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) responded, "I consider myself a friend of Turkey. But friends don't let friends commit crimes against humanity -- genocide -- and then act as witting or unwitting accomplices in their denial."
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) dismissed the threats of reprisals. "We will get a few angry words out of Ankara for a few days, and then it's over," he said. "We cannot provide genocide denial as one of the perks of friendship with the United States."
The resolution was backed by 19 Democrats, including committee Chairman Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor from Burlingame; and eight Republicans. Eight Democrats and 13 Republicans opposed it. All 10 Californians on the committee supported the resolution.
Schiff said he was optimistic that the resolution would pass the House, though he predicted another tough fight. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues, said the measure would "move swiftly to the House floor and will be passed with overwhelming support." A House vote is expected before Thanksgiving.
Similar resolutions were approved by the House in 1975 and 1984 but did not make it through the Senate. In 2000, a genocide resolution was headed to the House floor when the vote was abruptly called off at the urging of then-President Clinton.
"This is a historic day," Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America, said after the vote.
Turkish Ambassador Nabi Sensoy, who was in the audience for the vote, vowed to continue to fight, and the Turkish government said it "resents and condemns" the vote.