The Political Fighting Over a Word

The role of money, lobbyists, and voters in shaping the debate

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With Congress facing so many pressing issues—the war in Iraq, health insurance for children, a nominee for attorney general—why have lawmakers been preoccupied with a resolution about killings that occurred during the Ottoman Empire? Two reasons: lobbying and votes.

After two decades of unrelenting pressure on their representatives, Armenian-Americans managed to get the House Foreign Affairs Committee to approve a resolution on October 10 that would recognize as "genocide" the killing of up to 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks during a period beginning in 1915. More than 200 lawmakers have said they will support the move, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that she'll bring the resolution to a full House vote this fall.

Getting the committee to pass this resolution was no simple feat. Turkey, an important strategic ally, has been spending millions lobbying against it. Turkey adamantly disputes the genocide label, arguing that people on both sides were killed.

Influence. Represented by at least five different Washington firms, Turkey has paid former Rep. Robert Livingston, a Republican who chaired the powerful House Appropriations Committee, more than $12 million to be the main lobbying force against the resolution. Turkey has also paid the law firm DLA Piper $100,000 per month for Richard Gephardt, the former House majority leader, to help arrange high-level meetings for Turkish diplomats and to lobby against the measure.

Turkey's political clout and prowess in Washington had been enough to stave off the resolution, until the 2006 midterm elections. Democrats—who had viewed the resolution more favorably—were now in control. But more important, a number of California Democrats with large Armenian-American constituencies rose to leadership positions. They include Pelosi, Rep. Adam Schiff, and Rep. Anna Eshoo, who is the granddaughter of an Armenian. The resolution, says Schiff, whose Burbank-area district is home to 75,000 Armenian-Americans, gives "the United States the moral authority it needs to take action against other genocides like that taking place today in Darfur."

After the House panel approved the resolution, Turkey reacted angrily, jeopardizing part of the U.S. logistics operation for Iraq. That combined with Livingston's increased lobbying efforts persuaded at least 20 House members to drop their backing for the resolution. It now seems unlikely that the measure will pass in the House. Yet, with emotions running high on both sides, it's not an issue that will go away anytime soon.