The House on Friday overwhelmingly rejected calls for an immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq, a vote engineered by the Republicans that was intended to fail. Democrats derided the vote as a political stunt.

“Our troops have become the enemy. We need to change direction in Iraq,” said Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, whose call a day earlier for pulling out troops sparked a nasty, personal debate over the war.

The House voted 403-3 to reject a nonbinding resolution calling for an immediate troop withdrawal.

“We want to make sure that we support our troops that are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. We will not retreat,” Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said as the GOP leadership pushed the issue to a vote over the protest of Democrats.

It was the second time in less than a week that President Bush’s Iraq policy stirred heated debate in Congress. On Tuesday, the Senate defeated a Democratic push for Bush to lay out a timetable for withdrawal.

Murtha, a 73-year-old Marine veteran decorated for combat service in Vietnam, issued his call for a troop withdrawal at a news conference on Thursday. In little more than 24 hours, Hastert and Republicans decided to put the question to the House.

Democrats said it was a political stunt and quickly decided to vote against it in an attempt to drain it of significance.

“A disgrace,” declared House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

“The rankest of politics and the absence of any sense of shame,” added Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat.

Republicans hoped to place Democrats in an unappealing position – either supporting a withdrawal that critics said would be precipitous or opposing it and angering voters who want an end to the conflict. They also hoped the vote could restore GOP momentum on an issue – the war – that has seen plummeting public support in recent weeks.

Democrats claimed Republicans were changing the meaning of Murtha’s withdrawal proposal. He has said a smooth withdrawal would take six months.

At one point in the emotional debate, Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, told of a phone call she received from a Marine colonel.

“He asked me to send Congress a message – stay the course. He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message – that cowards cut and run, Marines never do,” Schmidt said.

Democrats booed and shouted her down – causing the House to come to a standstill.

Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., charged across the chamber’s center aisle screaming that Republicans were making uncalled-for personal attacks.

“You guys are pathetic! Pathetic!” yelled Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass.

Democrats gave Murtha a standing ovation as he entered the chamber and took his customary corner seat.

Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell rushed to Murtha’s defense Friday, saying the congressman is a 37-year veteran of the U.S. Marines and “fought with honor and distinction” in the Vietnam War.

“For (U.S.) House Republicans to try and ridicule him in front of the American people for something he said and believes is an outrage and should not be tolerated,” Rendell said in a statement.

The fireworks came as lawmakers rushed toward a two-week Thanksgiving break.

Murtha proposed a resolution that would force the president to withdraw the nearly 160,000 troops in Iraq “at the earliest practicable date.”

It also would establish a quick-reaction force and a nearby presence of Marines in the region.

The Republican alternative simply said: “It is the sense of the House of Representatives that the deployment of United States forces in Iraq be terminated immediately.”

“It’s just heinous,” Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., said of the Republican move.

“This is a personal attack on one of the best members, one of the most respected members of this House, and it is outrageous,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.

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