By House standards, the vote was an overwhelming one: 308 votes to 122. The Republican majority in the House split down the middle with only 122 supporting the president and almost as many - 107 -- voting against. The vote endorsed a measure to bar cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody that had already passed the Senate by 90 votes to nine. But it was a lot more than that.
Over the past five years, President George W. Bush has enjoyed one of the most disciplined and uncritical House majorities of any president in modern times. Not since President Lyndon Baines Johnson pushed through his historic Civil Rights and welfare legislation in the 1964-66 congressional term has any president been able to command and bend the notoriously fractious House so much to his will as Bush did through his first term. And this occurred even though the president had been elected with significantly less votes in 2000 than his main opponent, Democratic candidate Al Gore. Under the iron direction of House Majority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the House voted unprecedented increases in military spending budgets, especially after the mega-terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and it never seriously asked where any of the money went.
But now DeLay is tied down, fighting not just for his political life but his very freedom, facing grand jury indictments back in Texas. His feared, tight discipline over the GOP Majority on Capitol Hill is gone, no clear successor has dared raise his head yet, and House members, only a year after Bush was reelected to a second term with more votes than any other president had ever received in American history, are running scared that national anger over the unending war in Iraq will threaten many of their seats in the November 2006 midterm congressional races.
The current House Republican leaders, trying to keep DeLay's leadership slot warm for him for when he has beaten the rap, if he ever does, had sought to avoid any vote, even a non-binding one, on the issue, knowing that it was likely to embarrass President Bush, who has been hanging tough against any measures to outlaw the use of torture.
Instead, Wednesday's vote made clear that nearly half the GOP members in the House are so angry and even disgusted over the president and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's refusal to clearly and comprehensively ban the use of torture by U.S. forces around the world, more than a year after the revelations about Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, that they were ready to openly defy the White House on the record about it.
It was also striking that more than 100 GOP members of the House chose to defy and even humiliate a war president from their own party the very same day that he gave a high profile speech at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center vowing to stay the course in Iraq and reaffirming his firm commitment not to pull out U.S. forces from that country until the insurgency was defeated and stable, democratic government was established.
Even worse from the president's point of view, more than 100 members of his own party humiliated and repudiated him in favor of his most bitter and formidable rival -- Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the very man he defeated in a bitter primary contest for the GOP presidential nomination back in 2000.
McCain, ironically, has staked out a unique position for himself, blasting Bush from the right as being weak rather than too aggressive on Iraq, and has demanded that Bush "level" with the American people and make the case for sending more troops there, rather than less, to quell the insurgency.
The vote was also a huge boost to Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a former Marine colonel and the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, who infuriated the White House last month with a blistering attack on its Iraq policy. He presented the motion to endorse the victory that McCain had won in the Senate on the issue.
It took a lot to anger Murtha, an outspoken champion of the president in March 2003 for going to war with Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. And when the crusty, fearless 73-year-old congressman from a crucial Northeastern swing state finally let fly with his built-up anger and frustration, he became a national celebrity and major figure in the Iraq war debate overnight. The president and his chief strategist, deputy White House chief of staff, were livid, administration insiders told United Press International. But on Wednesday night, 107 Republicans in the House sided with Murtha.
Just this week, the once-masterful White House spin-control experts were trying to dispel the devastating image on the cover of Newsweek magazine showing the president trapped in a bubble of his own making. But the House vote and the defection of more than 100 members of his own party on it, coming only hours after Bush gave a major speech on Iraq vowing not to change direction on major policies, made the image seem more real than ever.
If the president has lost the loyalty and confidence of almost half of his most favored and loyal inner circle supporters on such a hot button issue, what credibility and leverage does he have left with anyone else?