WASHINGTON — A controversial measure to officially recognize the Armenian genocide, which only days ago appeared headed for approval in the House, has begun to lose support. The change comes in the face of furious protests by the Turkish government and warnings of possible repercussions for U.S. military operations in Iraq.
Seven representatives withdrew as cosponsors on Monday, followed by at least four more Tuesday. Since Jan. 30, when the resolution was introduced, at least 21 representatives have pulled their names, leaving 215 cosponsors -- short of a majority of the House.
"Now is not the appropriate time for us to stick our finger in the eye of an important ally," said Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), who removed himself as a cosponsor on Monday.
The House resolution poses a quandary for Democratic supporters, particularly Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who has promised to bring it to the floor
Armenian Americans, an important constituency in California, have pushed for years to get Congress to declare the early 20th century killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks a genocide. But some Democrats have grown increasingly uneasy about voting for a resolution that could be seen as harming national security or jeopardizing U.S. troops in Iraq.
President Bush telephoned Pelosi on Tuesday to urge her not to bring up the resolution, which calls on the president to "accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians as genocide." Pelosi said on national television Sunday that she had never heard from the president on the issue. Nine of the 11 lawmakers who withdrew their support this week are Democrats, and one of Pelosi's closest allies -- Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Committee -- is working to defeat the measure. The House leadership has yet to set a date for a vote but has been aiming to hold it before Thanksgiving.
Although the number of cosponsors is not necessarily an indication of a measure's fate -- some lawmakers have signaled their support for the resolution even though they are not cosponsors -- supporters believed the measure had its best chance in years to pass after more than half of the House members signed on.
The sudden drop in support comes less than week after the resolution cleared the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
That vote angered Turkey, which could disrupt military operations in Iraq by denying the U.S. access to Incirlik -- a crucial air base used to supply troops. At the same time, the Turkish prime minister is weighing a raid into northern Iraq to hit Kurdish rebels. That could destabilize the safest region in Iraq.
Supporters and opponents of the genocide resolution now believe that the vote could be tight, and both sides have stepped up their lobbying.
Gordon Johndroe, the National Security Council spokesman, said that top administration officials have been on the phone to House members. "We continue to urge the House not to take up the measure," Johndroe said. "Calls have been made at all levels, up to the president."
Supporters noted that several members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee back the resolution, even though they were not cosponsors. "We have got to go on the counterattack," said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks). "If we had the vote today, it would be close."
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the bill's chief sponsor, acknowledged that it would not be an easy fight. "When you think about what we have against us -- the president, a foreign policy establishment that has condoned this campaign of denial, the Turkish lobby," he said, "against that you have the truth, which is a powerful thing but doesn't always win out."
Trent Wisecup, an aide to Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.), co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues, called on Pelosi to throw around her political weight. "Time to step up, Madame Speaker," he said. Pelosi has said that she will not seek to pressure colleagues, calling it a vote of conscience.
A number of the resolution's supporters said they were still hopeful it would pass. "The support continues to be strong, and it continues to be bipartisan," said Elizabeth S. Chouldjian of the Armenian National Committee of America.
"Some congressional offices have told us, 'I'm with you but I'm not going to put my name on a piece of paper so that I become a target of the Gephardts and Livingstons of the world,' " she added. She was referring to the Turkish government's heavyweight lobbyists: Richard Gephardt, a former House Democratic leader, and Robert Livingston, a Republican who was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Several lawmakers who have backed away from the resolution said that they had become convinced that the situation in the Middle East was too volatile to support a symbolic resolution that jeopardized the relationship the U.S. has with a critical Muslim ally.