Washington (CNN) - Just weeks after the killing of Osama bin Laden, Congress came closer than ever before to forcing the Obama administration to come up with a plan for a significant drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
The vote, on an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill, failed 204 – 215, but that tally was surprisingly closer that even its supporters thought it would be. Twenty-six Republicans joined 178 Democrats to support the measure.
The amendment would have required the administration to give Congress a plan with an expedited timeframe to transfer U.S. military operations back to Afghan control, accompanied by negotiations for a political solution there. It also required an updated intelligence assessment into the strength of al Qaeda - which supporters of the proposal say may be much diminished now, in part by the death of Osama bin Laden.
Even as the president is traveling overseas for an economic summit in Europe, the two top Democrats in the House not only supported the measure, but went to the House floor to push the president towards action on Afghanistan.
"I think it's really important for us to know what this amendment does, that, I think, reflects the mood of the American people," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, adding that Americans were weary of the sacrifices the country is making in Afghanistan. "It's very reasonable. It has a goal in sight. It has a reasonable approach as to how we get there."
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Massachusetts, who up to now has staunchly supported the president's handling of the war and avoided pushing for any deadlines, said the killing of bin Laden is a "moment for reflection" in the decade-long struggle in Afghanistan.
"It is essential that we fight the smartest war possible against terrorists," Hoyer said. "But it is fair to ask how a massive troop presence in Afghanistan continues to help us accomplish that goal."
The chief Democratic sponsor, Rep Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, pushed for a similar amendment last year, which received 162 votes. But that version was more blunt, requiring a congressional vote on cutting off funding if the president veered from his drawdown plan.
McGovern said he and his Republican co-sponsor, Rep Walter Jones of North Carolina, were aiming to surpass that number, but were surprised when the vote topped 200.
The Massachusetts Democrat insisted the vote helps President Barack Obama build support for a major drawdown of U.S. troops as he approaches the July 2011 deadline that the administration set for starting to withdraw some number of forces.
"I believe the president would like to see this war come to an end, and I believe that this vote here today puts a little wind at his back to help move him move in the direction of making more than just a token drawdown in July," McGovern said after the vote.
Referring to the 26 Republicans supporting the amendment as a "huge" number, Jones noted that the best he was able to get on previous votes that pushed for a timeline or withdrawal from Afghanistan was seven or eight. "I think it's the American people, all the polling showing they are just frustrated and tired," Jones said.
Jones said Thursday's vote "energized" the effort to continue to push to end the protracted war in Afghanistan in other legislative vehicles, such as cutting funding on an upcoming Defense spending bill. But he said his other focus would be to find a national spokesperson, perhaps a retired military leader or celebrity, to help spearhead a public campaign to push the issue outside of Washington.
Another amendment sponsored by Republican Jason Chaffetz of Utah called on the president to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, leaving only a small counterterrorism force and requiring a timeline for that withdrawal within 60 days. It also failed, but by a bigger margin, 123-294. Chaffetz said privately more Republicans support his position that it's time to end the war in Afghanistan, but he said, "They are afraid of being perceived as soft on terror."
Chaffetz said that a new National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan that gave an update on the current threat that al Qaeda poses "would be very, very helpful" at getting more congressional support for his effort. He noted the last NIE is two years old and now that Osama Bin Laden is dead it's time to get a new report.