WASHINGTON — FINALLY the American government stands together, as the last hours count down before the UN Security Council's Jan. 15 deadline. Congress has joined President Bush in speaking for peace if possible, but for war if necessary to force Iraq from Kuwait. After two days of historic and often emotional debate Congress has affirmed not only the president's request for authority to attack Iraqi forces if he decides that is necessary, but also its own legislative ability to play a future role in deciding the fundamental questions of war and peace. And it has verbally promised full support for American troops if war breaks out.
``It's a classic case of the power of the president to wage war versus the power of the Congress to declare war,'' says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. Both powers are vested by America's 200-year-old Constitution. By its votes Congress once again has affirmed both.
In the past two decades Congress and the president have repeatedly wrestled with these often-competing powers; each has accused the other of seizing too much authority. Frequently the tussle involved the legacy of the divisive Vietnam War, and congressional efforts to avoid America's becoming unintentionally entangled in a repetition.
By approving the force resolutions Saturday, Congress authorized ``quite conceivably the engagement of 420,000 American troops in war,'' says Congress-watcher Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute: ``There's nothing in the past 20 years that's comparable'' to the fundamental nature of the debate.
As the international diplomacy of UN Secretary General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar and others enters its final hours, Congress now hopes backers of the just-approved resolutions were right. During the two days of debate they had insisted that congressional approval of the use of force was the last best hope of convincing Saddam Hussein to withdraw.
``It is a paradox that by voting to go to war we make peace more possible, if only marginally so,'' offered Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana, a supporter of the Bush-sought measure.
The narrowness of the key votes, particularly in the Senate, reflect deep divisions not only in Congress but among the American people, political scientists say. ``But any vote of authorization is enough,'' Mr. Ornstein says, to show support for President Bush and to affirm Congress's role in deciding whether to go to war.
The resolution Congress approved is more than a diplomatic arrow in President Bush's quiver.
``This debate is about war,'' said Sen. Albert Gore, (D) of Tennessee, a backer of the victorious measure. ``None of us should doubt about what is intended.... How could we vote for the use of force only days before a deadline and yet be surprised if force is used?''
Within the broad debate lay another, as members sought to apply the lessons of history: Which past war offers the most pertinent instruction today, World War II or the Vietnam War?
World War II taught that an aggressive dictator must be stopped swiftly, said Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada: To wait is to increase the human cost. He backed the war-authorization measure: ``We cannot wait for the far worse war to come.''
THE Vietnam War should have taught Americans ``do not commit US forces to combat, in a potentially long or bloody conflict, unless Americans are committed'' to war as well, warned Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, a decorated Vietnam veteran. He supported continued economic sanctions, a proposal that lost narrowly in the Senate, and by a sizable margin in the House of Representatives.
Polls show strong support from Americans for war to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. But they also indicate that as casualty estimates rise, public approval plummets.
Most members of Congress agreed with Sen. David Pryor (D) of Arkansas, who called the vote on approving force ``the most serious decision that I ... have ever had to make'' as a member of Congress.
For most members future uncertainties stemming from war are much of the reason for the difficulty in deciding: casualties, Middle East instability, future terrorism against America, and the economic cost for Americans.
Weighing particularly heavily was the terrible human cost of war. Nations may glory in conquest, said Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii, his empty right sleeve a mute reminder of World War II service, but many who do the actual fighting ``may just remember pain, brutality, and ugliness.''
``I know what it is to lose a grandson,'' said Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia sorrowfully, his face registering anguish: ``The greatest sorrow of my life was the loss of my own.''