By Vicki Allen
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives on Tuesday crushed a bill to reinstitute the draft as Republicans accused Democrats of raising the specter of compulsory military service to turn voters against President Bush's reelection bid.
After a bitter debate on Bush's handling of Iraq, the House killed the bill 402-2 as Republicans sought to stamp out rumors of an impending draft that have swept college campuses and the Internet, worrying young people and parents across the country.
With the presidential and congressional elections less than a month away, the White House also worked to dampen draft rumors that Republicans said have been fueled by Democrats. It threatened to veto the bill it called "both unnecessary and counterproductive."
"This campaign is a baseless and malevolent concoction of the Democrat party," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican. "It has one purpose -- to spread fear."
Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, countered that Bush's Iraq policies have so strained U.S. forces, that a draft was possible no matter how unpopular it would be.
"Guess what, we're running out of troops ... Let's not be astounded that what follows is a draft. The only problem is that you can't announce it until after the election," Conyers said."
Rep. Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat, said he offered a bill last winter to reinstitute the draft to spark debate on a system that he said placed the burden of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan on lower-income people who make up most of the volunteer U.S. military.
DeLay said Republicans pulled up the long-dormant bill "to expose a fraud" that he said "has been given voice by the leading Democrats" that Bush would move to reimpose the draft after the Nov. 2 election.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, called reinstituting the draft "a nonissue" and said it would not be addressed in that chamber.
House Democrats accused Republicans of a dirty election-year trick, and used the debate to attack Bush's Iraq policies which they said have left the country in chaos and discouraged help from foreign troops.
"This president's foreign policies are what's scaring the kids of this country," said Rep. Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat.
Some Democrats also said they doubted Bush would have taken the country to war if members of wealthy families had been called on to fight it.
"He would never have been able to say bring 'em on with other people's children," Rangel said.
"This is a rich man's war, and it's a poor man's fight," said Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat. "We do not have enough troops in the field to prevail," he said, while accusing Republicans of ducking debate on how to get more forces.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush has made it clear he "strongly supports the all-volunteer military," and "does not believe we need a military draft."
"There are some who have tried to bring this up as a scare tactic, and that is highly unfortunate," McClellan said.
Rep. Jim McDermott, a Washington Democrat, said, "Every time they get up on television and say there's never going to be a draft ... people start calling our offices saying when's the draft going to start."
McDermott said Republicans were worried because new voter registrations were going up "and they know those people are going to come out and vote against them. So they're trying their best to tamp down this fire, but they can't get anyone to believe them any more." (Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro and Susan Cornwell)