Republican leaders of the House of Representatives surprised opposition Democrats Tuesday by bringing up a Democrat-sponsored bill calling for resumption of the military draft. But Democrats voted against their own bill, and accused Republicans of trying to use the legislation to help President Bush against Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry.
For months, the sharpest Democratic critics in Congress of President Bush have alleged that the his administration has a secret plan to resume a military draft.
Democrats cited a series of emails circulated on the internet, according to some media reports, but also cited what they called indications from statements by administration officials.
On Tuesday, this included a statement from the former U.S. head of coalition operations in Iraq, Paul Bremer, who said the United States did not have sufficient troops in Iraq.
Democratic critics also accuse the administration of permitting an unofficial draft, by extending tours of service, and what are called stop loss policies by the Defense Department.
These aim to prevent retirements from the various military services from weakening the force the United States can project in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bush administration officials call rumors of a draft ridiculous. President Bush reiterated this position during his first debate with Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, saying the U.S. military will remain an all volunteer force.
In early 2003, Democrat Charles Rangel introduced a bill that would require every U.S. citizen between 18 and 26 years of age, including women, to serve two years in the armed forces or reserve.
A war veteran, and African-American member of Congress, he argued that minorities would shoulder most of the burden in Iraq, and by making the children of high-level government decision-makers vulnerable to the draft they might be less inclined to commit troops to war.
Despite administration denials, Mr. Rangel and others cited rumors circulating on the internet, as well as media reports, that President Bush would take such a politically sensitive step, but not until after a hoped for victory in the November election.
On Tuesday, House Republicans brought Mr. Rangel's bill to the floor of the House for a vote, as part of a package of non-controversial bills.
Mr. Rangel, who was not consulted, called this an attempt by Republicans to use a vote on the bill, which was certain to be rejected, to end rumors about a potential draft that might hurt President Bush.
"It's a prostitution of the legislative process to take serious issues and use [them] for political purposes, on the eve of an election, just to say that they are against the draft," he said.
Republicans responded by accusing Democrats of a hoax, accusing the opposition of planting information in the press about a military draft.
"The basis for our being here today is simply to answer the concerns of the American people that have been created by political forces who are trying to create controversy where none should exist," said New York Republican John McHugh. "The administration clearly, the Department of Defense clearly, and I suspect at the end of this vote it will be shown the House of Representatives clearly rejects the fact either before an election, at an election, or after an election that there is a need, there is a rationale for returning to mandatory conscription in the U.S. military."
Democrats say the Rangel legislation was aimed not at resuming a draft, but at stimulating debate about the U.S. military and inequities in recruitment.
The bill on a military draft was defeated overwhelmingly by the House. Similar legislation was introduced in the Senate in 2003 but never came to a vote.