Conscience or Politics?

By , Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

WAS it conscience or politics that shaped the votes of members of Congress Saturday on the resolution that authorized the president to use force in the Persian Gulf? My feeling, as I watched hour after hour of the proceedings on TV, was that I was hearing conscience being expressed - more so than I had ever before witnessed in a congressional debate. Yet these politicians are quite aware that they must answer to the voters for their actions. So these senators and congressmen had to be mindful of how their vote might affect their future.

Almost all the possible Democratic presidential candidates - Gephardt, Bradley, Nunn, and Kerrey - voted to deny the president this authority. Their position was not really anti-Bush. They just weren't ready to support an attack. They counseled patience, at least for a while, after which they would be ready to back the US going to war.

How would this play should any of these men become presidential candidates? Are they doves? Not really. At most the candidates might later claim - depending on events - that this was the beginning of their seriously challenging the president on the war issue. The political risk? Voters might fault them for not having backed the president - for being soft on the war issue.

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Sen. Al Gore, already reaching for another try at the presidency, came down on the side of those who were convinced that a ``no'' vote would only give comfort to Saddam Hussein. He thus may be less favorably positioned than other potential Democratic candidates from Congress to challenge the president on the war issue later on - should it be politically profitable to do so.

Or Gore might profit from ``being with the president all the way'' on the Gulf issue - perhaps gaining a decisive edge over the other Democrats in the race for the nomination.

Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield, an authentic dove, said the reason the US was in the Mideast was oil - and that wasn't a good enough reason to commit our troops to battle. Bring the men and women home, immediately, he said. I suspect that this will please the moderate-liberal voters in Oregon who keep Hatfield in office.

Minority leader Bob Dole expressed strong support for avoiding war and giving the sanctions time to work. But after talking ``patience,'' he gave his vote to Bush - an expression of loyalty more than all-out backing. Would the people back in Kansas understand this ambivalence? My guess is that Dole would be seen expressing how he felt, providing useful guidance to the president, but remaining, as he should, supportive of Mr. Bush.

The pro-Israel lobby was particularly active in pushing for a ``yes'' vote. Some observers say this lobby's action may have been decisive in Bush's victory. They point to Congressman Solarz, who was one of the leaders of those pushing the support Bush was seeking, as a prime example of members of Congress who let their pro-Israel feelings enter into their votes.

Yet several Jewish members of Congress didn't vote ``yes.'' Thus, it would be oversimplification to give too much weight to the work of the pro-Israel lobby in this vote.

Again, I must emphasize that I felt that this Great Debate was one where conscience, not politics, was the prevailing motivation. Indeed, I heard senator after senator and representative after representative talking with such conviction and with such passion that I was convinced that these were politicians who were saying and meaning: ``Here I stand - and let the political chips fall wherever they may.''

The most moving of the speeches? Gephardt, in my opinion, was tops in the House as he rose to new oratorical heights. And in so doing, whether calculated or not, this young House leader improved his presidential prospects.

Senator Nunn's tight logic, as he argued to give the sanctions more time, was most impressive. I could just see him on the platform in a presidential debate, giving President Bush a very hard time. It's an overly used assertion, but it applies to Nunn: The Georgian looks presidential.

Among Republicans, Senator Warner gave a sparkling performance. I was a bit surprised. I had not known Warner could marshal his facts so well and make such a compelling argument.

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