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26 10 2007 - U.S. and Turkey Thwart Armenian Genocide Bill

WASHINGTON, Oct. 25 — With backing from more than half of the House this summer, proponents of a resolution condemning the Armenian genocide were confident that they would finally prevail in their quest for Congressional recognition.

Adding to their optimism, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was a longtime backer of the resolution, which had been pushed mainly by her fellow Californians, and was committed to bringing it to a House vote.

But supporters of the measure were not prepared for the vehement opposition of two powerful governments — Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, which historians say conducted the genocide, and the United States, which needs Turkey’s help in Iraq. Their combined resistance caused the resolution to falter, embarrassing the speaker on a high-profile foreign policy front.

On Thursday, supporters surrendered, at least for now, telling Ms. Pelosi they were willing to wait until next year. “We believe that a large majority of our colleagues want to support a resolution recognizing the genocide on the House floor and that they will do so, provided the timing is more favorable,” the four chief sponsors said in a letter to Ms. Pelosi.

The faltering of the push to denounce the genocide illustrates what can happen when domestic politics collide with international affairs and how treacherous that can be for Congressional leaders like Ms. Pelosi, who came under criticism this year for a trip to Syria. It also turned a near triumph into a disappointment for those who believe Congress has a responsibility to send a message on past inhumanities to prevent future ones.

“We certainly thought it would be a very tough fight, but it was a much more lopsided one than we expected,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat and a main sponsor of the bill. Once Democrats gained control of Congress in January, supporters of the measure mobilized, seeing a way clear to the final vote that had eluded them because of opposition first from the Clinton administration and then from the Bush White House.

Ms. Pelosi as well as Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the new majority leader, were dedicated proponents of the resolution that would put the House on record as defining the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 as genocide. The crisis in Darfur, in Sudan, had raised public consciousness about genocide as well.

“This issue had a constituency, and there was a lot of momentum due to the switch in leadership and Darfur,” said Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America.

It did not hurt that Armenians are an influential bloc in California, Ms. Pelosi’s home, and that the resolution was a top priority of California House members of both parties, including Mr. Schiff and two other Democrats, Brad Sherman and Anna G. Eshoo. Ms. Eshoo is a lawmaker of Armenian heritage who is a close friend of Ms. Pelosi’s.

Mr. Sherman said the speaker’s decision to pledge a vote by the full House was not about personal relationships but about principle. “You don’t have to have a special relationship with this speaker to get her to be in favor of recognizing genocide,” he said.

While the backers of the resolution pressed ahead, the Turkish government also went to work, hiring a lobbying team to raise concerns about the potential backlash in Turkey if the resolution was approved, particularly when Turkey is a staging ground for the Iraq war.

The Turkish government has resisted the characterization of a genocide, seeing the deaths as among the many tragic losses in a time of brutal conflict. But most of the lobbying against the resolution centered on the need not to antagonize Turkey at a time when it was of crucial strategic value.

Among those carrying that message was Representative John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and a close ally of Ms. Pelosi’s, who began warning her in February against the bill.

“I explained what the ramifications were from a military standpoint, but she said she felt compelled to do it,” said Mr. Murtha, who welcomed Thursday’s decision. By midsummer, the advocates had 225 sponsors, more than the minimum of 218 needed to assure passage. But they refrained from pushing for a vote because Turkey was having its own national elections. Instead, they aimed for the fall.

Encouraged to consider the bill, the Foreign Affairs Committee approved it on Oct. 10, but by a relatively narrow 27-to-21 vote, because lawmakers were well aware that the measure could reach the floor this year.

Mr. Bush and the Turkish government intensified their opposition and within days, co-sponsors of both parties began abandoning the resolution.

Ms. Pelosi said it was the responsibility of its backers to secure the needed votes. “This is the legislative process,” she told reporters last week when asked about the furor. Its backers began reassessing their strategy and one result was the letter to the speaker on Thursday.

Even some of Ms. Pelosi’s allies said the bill’s withdrawal, while an embarrassment, may well have averted a larger problem for her had the proposal been approved, setting off problems with Turkey. Advocates of the bill predicted that Congress would eventually regret backing off in the face of a threatened backlash from an ally. “This sets a terrible example,” Mr. Hamparian said.

Seta Martayan

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