House panel may revive Armenian genocide resolution

The measure, which risks offending Turkey, a U.S. ally, is being handled more cautiously after the 2007 effort, when it appeared headed toward approval.

March 1, 2010
Source: Los Angeles Times (California)

By Richard Simon

Reporting from Washington

Two and a half years after lawmakers fell short in their effort to pass a resolution to recognize the Armenian genocide, sponsors of the long-debated measure are launching a new bid to bring the issue before the House.

Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village), who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee and backs the resolution, plans to bring it before his panel Thursday.

It will come before the House "only if the votes are there to pass it," Berman said. "Once we pass it out of committee, we're going to try to get those votes."

The resolution, which would officially recognize the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks nearly a century ago as genocide, has run into opposition from past Democratic and Republican administrations, which have warned it would offend Turkey, an important U.S. military ally.

The resolution's supporters are hopeful they stand a better chance this year because President Obama, as a candidate, said he "stood with the Armenian American community in calling for Turkey's acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide." Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had supported the resolution when they were senators.

Obama, however, disappointed Armenian Americans last year when he did not use the word "genocide" on the April 24 remembrance day, instead referring to the killings as "one of the great atrocities of the 20th century."

Although the Obama administration has not directly taken a position on the resolution, Mike Hammer, spokesman for the National Security Council, said the president had "consistently stated his position on the events of 1915.

"Our interest remains the achievement of a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts," Hammer said in a statement. "We continue to believe that the best way to advance that goal is for the Armenian and Turkish people to address the facts of the past as a part of their ongoing efforts to normalize relations."

ram S. Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, said, "The current administration's conduct, at least to date, stands in stark contrast to past administrations... that used every opportunity to score points with Ankara by attacking the broad, bipartisan congressional majority" in support of the recognition effort.

F. Stephen Larrabee, an expert on U.S.-Turkish relations, warned in a recent paper for the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica-based think tank, that the resolution's passage would deal a "serious blow to the Obama administration's efforts to put U.S.-Turkish relations on a firmer footing, and it could prompt the Turks to take retaliatory action."

Similar resolutions were approved by the House in 1975 and 1984 but did not make it through the Senate. In 2000, a genocide resolution was headed to the House floor when the vote was abruptly called off at the urging of President Clinton.

In 2007, after a majority of House members signed on as co-sponsors, the resolution appeared headed toward approval. But two dozen lawmakers withdrew their support after the George W. Bush administration and Turkish government warned that passage of the resolution could lead Turkey to block U.S. access to its air bases, which are used to get supplies to U.S. troops in Iraq. A House vote was put off again.

After that effort, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who has long supported the resolution, is likely to be more cautious about bringing it to the House floor. The resolution has 137 House sponsors from both parties, including much of the delegation from California, which has a large Armenian American population.

As the committee vote nears, lobbying from both sides of the issue is expected to intensify.

Among the critics, Rep. Edward Whitfield (R-Ky.), co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on U.S.-Turkish Relations, said, "I think the American people would agree that Congress should be focusing on ways to strengthen our economy and create jobs and leave this debate to the historians."

Berman, however, said that Congress, in championing human rights, "certainly should place a priority on recognizing this historical tragedy and calling it what it is."