WASHINGTON War-weary lawmakers pushed President Barack Obama to wind down the 10-year-old conflict in Afghanistan on Wednesday as the House of Representatives began debating a bill to authorize $690 billion in defense spending for the next fiscal year.
Republicans and Democrats aiming to ramp up pressure on Obama introduced 18 amendments on Afghanistan, some demanding the start of a phased withdrawal and others seeking a radical shift away from the military's current troop-intensive counterinsurgency-style strategy.
The anti-war amendments had little chance of winning the 217 votes needed for passage if all members vote. Supporters were hopeful of topping the 162-vote high that similar measures have received in the past in order to send a message to Obama ahead of his decision on troop withdrawals in July.
"We're trying to put some wind at the president's back so that in July there will be more than just a token drawdown," said Democratic Representative Jim McGovern, who expressed concern about reports that only 5,000 service members might be withdrawn.
"It'll help empower the president to do what I think in his heart he knows is the right thing to do -- and that is to bring this war to an end," McGovern said.
Pressure to wind down the war came as the House began debating the bill that would authorize defense spending for the 2012 fiscal year, including a $571 billion base budget for the Pentagon and $119 billion for overseas contingencies, mainly the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
A final vote on the bill could come as early as Thursday.
Although the bill authorizes expenditures, it is primarily a means for Congress and the administration to set defense policy. Actual spending levels are established by appropriations bills and other measures.
The bill being considered by the Republican-controlled House would impose restrictions on the Obama administration's effort to implement the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia and undermine the repeal of a ban on gays serving openly in the military.
It also seeks to force the administration to continue several military programs eliminated to reduce costs at a time when the government is under pressure to cut its $1.4 trillion deficit and pay down its $14.3 trillion debt.
The House was considering more than 150 proposed amendments to the bill, dealing with everything from military use of alternative fuels and contractor oversight to the repatriation of remains of 13 sailors killed in the First Barbary War of 1804 and buried in a mass grave in Tripoli.
Many tried to influence U.S. war policy in Afghanistan, pressing for early withdrawals, ending aid to Pakistan or demanding a change in strategy.
Representative Jason Chaffetz said during debate late on Wednesday his amendment to switch to a counterterrorism mission with fewer people in Afghanistan was needed to avoid "mission creep" that was promoting "nation-building."
"It's trying to bring our troops home. Nobody should be disappointed in that," he said of the amendment.
But opponents said counterterrorism alone would not produce the results the administration is seeking -- a politically stable Afghanistan that will not again become a base for attacks against the United States.
"We would not ... have been able to run the mission against bin Laden that we did if we didn't have the broader support in Afghanistan," Representative Adam Smith said. "If we pull out and think that we can run a counterterrorism mission with a government that is collapsing around us and that does not support us, then we kid ourselves."
Representative Mike Coffman, a former Marine infantry officer, said, "If in fact we do inexpeditiously withdraw and revert to counterterrorism, there will be many lives lost unnecessarily due to our conduct here tonight."
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Bill Trott)