WASHINGTON -- A bitterly divided House Foreign Affairs Committee overcame presidential and diplomatic resistance to pass a resolution Wednesday that calls the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians nearly a century ago a "genocide."
By an unexpectedly close 27-21 vote, the panel approved language declaring that "the Armenian genocide was conceived and carried out by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923." Upward of 1.5 million Armenians died during the period, according to some estimates.
"Nations of the world have periods in their history that they can't overlook; we acknowledge and we confront them," said Rep. Jim Costa, a Fresno Democrat who is on the committee. "My Armenian friends believe this was a genocide, and so do I."
The nonbinding resolution calls upon President Bush to use the word "genocide" when he issues his annual Armenian message in April. The president, though, will not do so, even if the full House approves the resolution in coming weeks.
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Like presidents Clinton and Bush before him, the current president considers the phrase "Armenian genocide" historically questionable and diplomatically harmful. White House and Turkish officials warn that U.S.-Turkey relations will suffer if the House approves the resolution. The Ottoman Empire was the precursor of modern Turkey.
"Its passage would do great harm to our relations with a key ally in NATO and in the global war on terror," Bush told reporters several hours before the committee acted.
Turkey's allies noted repeatedly Wednesday that about 70% of U.S. military air cargo entering Iraq comes in through Turkey. The country's Incirlik air base is heavily used by U.S. warplanes, and an estimated 3,000 trucks each day enter Iraq over the Turkish border.
"America can ill afford to lose the support of a critical ally like Turkey," said Rep. Robert Wexler, R-Fla.
Armenian-Americans mobilized constituencies in regions including the San Joaquin Valley, as well as Michigan and New Jersey, to support the measure.
It is endorsed by all San Joaquin Valley lawmakers, who are attentive to the 50,000-plus Armenian-Americans living in the region.
During the years that Republicans controlled the House, Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, was denoted the chief author.
"The United States needs to be firm about recognizing genocide when it occurs," Radanovich said.
The committee approved a differently worded resolution in 2005 by a 40-7 margin.
Lawmakers say this year's vote was closer because in 2005, committee members knew that House Republican leaders would block it from coming to the House floor. This enabled certain lawmakers to cast a constituent-friendly vote in committee while remaining confident the United States wouldn't suffer real diplomatic fallout.
This year, the committee vote carried more weight because Democrats under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appear determined to bring the resolution before the full House. Pelosi has not yet set a date for a vote, but it appears guaranteed to pass if she does, because 226 House members -- more than a majority -- have already co-sponsored it.
The resolution is symbolic, without force of law, and so it needs neither Senate approval nor the president's signature. In this respect, it is similar to other House resolutions, like one approved unanimously Tuesday that denounces female genital mutilation.
Few resolutions, though, can match the Armenian genocide measure for political intensity.
The Turkish government says that hundreds of thousands of Turks as well as Armenians died during a complicated war, but that there's no evidence supporting claims of a concerted government effort to eradicate Armenians. Turkish leaders consider it a national insult to accuse their predecessors of committing an international crime.
"I just don't understand why we would shoot ourselves in the foot," said Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind. "The whole [Mideast] is a tinderbox, and our strongest ally in the area is Turkey."
The committee's vote Wednesday afternoon followed more than three hours of debate and marked the first time in two years that the panel has considered an Armenian genocide measure. The full House last approved an Armenian genocide resolution in 1984.
Although the outcome appeared pre-ordained Wednesday, with nearly half of the committee previously signed on as resolution co-sponsors, the first hearing was packed.
"We have to weigh the desire to express our solidarity with the Armenian people and to condemn this historic nightmare ... against the risk that it could cause young men and women in the uniform of the United States armed services to pay an even heavier price," said the committee chairman, Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo.
Lantos voted for the resolution.
While avoiding making direct threats in public, Turkish officials have repeatedly cautioned the resolution would further undermine America's already tentative standing in a volatile region.
Turkey is spending more than $300,000 a month on lobbyists hired to oppose the resolution, according to Justice Department filings. The Turkish Embassy's allies helped pack the hearing room, wearing large buttons urging no votes. The Turkish ambassador, Nabi Sensoy, sat throughout the hearing alongside three visiting members of the Turkish legislature.
"It's very disappointing," Sensoy said afterward, "and I hope it won't go further than this."