Following three hours of intense debate, the House voted this evening 403-3 to reject a non-binding resolution to immediately withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.

Responding to a call yesterday by Democratic Rep. Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania to withdraw troops from Iraq, House Republicans had scheduled a quick vote this evening to settle the issue and put lawmakers on the record.

The Republican alternative read: “It is the sense of the House of Representatives that the deployment of United States forces in Iraq be terminated immediately.” It was proposed by Rep. Duncan Hunter of California.

Democrats accused Republicans of changing the meaning of Murtha’s proposal. The Democrat hawk has said a smooth withdrawal would take six months.

House GOP leaders expected a swift rejection and that, indeed did occur.

Democrats argued the vote was a political stunt but rallied to vote against it to diminish its significance.

“A disgrace,” declared House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “The rankest of politics and the absence of any sense of shame,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat.

“We want to make sure that we support our troops that are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. prior to the vote. “We will not retreat.”

During the House session late this afternoon, Democrats erupted in anger when Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio quoted Ohio state Rep. Danny Bubp, a Marine Corps Reserve officer.

“He asked me to send Congress a message ‘Stay the course,'” she said, “he also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message, that ‘Cowards cut and run. Marines never do.'”

The Republicans’ move came shortly after Democratic Rep. Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania, a Vietnam veteran with 30 years in Congress who voted to authorize the war in Iraq, called for a pullout of the nearly 160,000 troops.

Murtha had proposed a resolution that would force the president to withdraw the troops “at the earliest predictable date.”

“Our troops have become the primary target of the insurgency,” Murtha said. “They are united against U.S. forces and we have become a catalyst for violence. The war in Iraq is not going as advertised. It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion.”

Media reports have characterized Murtha’s position on the war as a fresh turnabout after decades as a “hawk.” But in September 2003, just six months after the war began, the New York Times reported Murtha called on Bush to fire Iraq aides, saying he had been misled into voting for the war.

Last year, he joined Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in making public his previously private statements that the conflict is “unwinnable.”

Murtha also endorsed stridently anti-war Gov. Howard Dean for chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Earlier this week, the Senate defeated a Democratic proposal for Bush to set a timetable for withdrawal. But the chamber later approved a statement that conditions should be created in the next year for a phased withdrawal.

A U.S. field commander in Iraq, Col. James Brown, has responded to Murtha, arguing, “Here on the ground, our job is not done.”

“We have to finish the job that we began here. It’s important for the security of this nation,” said Brown, commander of the 56th Brigade Combat Team.

Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, called Murtha’s position unconscionable and irresponsible.

“We’ve got to support our troops to the hilt and see this mission through,” said Johnson, who served in the Air Force 29 years.

Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, said: “On this issue, the president believes [Murtha is] wrong.”

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, declared in a Fox News interview: “We cannot unilaterally cut and run.”

“We must come together with the Iraqi people, make sure they’re secure, make sure their government is ongoing,” she said. “They have made huge progress. The idea that we would set a timetable would put our troops in jeopardy there – it would make them an even bigger target for insurgents.”

Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts responded to heavy Republican criticism of Murtha, without defending his stance.

“I won’t stand for the swift-boating of Jack Murtha,” said Kerry, referring to the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that challenged his war record during the 2004 presidential campaign.

“There is no sterner stuff than the backbone and courage that defines Jack Murtha’s character and conscience,” the senator said.

Murtha, who has a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts, served 37 years in the Marine Corps, retiring as a colonel in 1990. He’s the top Democrat on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.

Kerry wants a phased withdrawal from Iraq, beginning with the exit of 20,000 troops after the country’s December elections.

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