Congress rallies 'round the flag, but division lurks
While legislative agenda shifted radically last Tuesday, lawmakers don't see role as simply nodding to president.
WASHINGTON — It's the hour of the statesman on Capitol Hill. The byword is not just bipartisanship, where two parties work together, but nonpartisanship - where all work for the common good. Anyone heard backsliding into partisan sniping has had to swiftly recant.
But even as Congress strives to embody America's united stand against terrorism, it finds itself walking a difficult political line. By design, it is the branch of government tasked to be a forum for debate on great issues.
In fact, while last week's terrorist attacks instantly reshaped the fall agenda here, this session won't be without vigorous differences among lawmakers on at least some matters - from law-enforcement measures that curtail civil liberties to steps to revive the economy.
But that isn't a fact anyone wants to stress just yet.
"We're all on board. We have unity of purpose, and no one right now wants to emphasize partisan differences. It's not helpful even to ask that kind of question now," says a Democratic staffer.
A sweeping war-powers resolution authorizing the president to use force against terrorists passed the Congress with only one dissenting vote. And a request for $40 billion in new spending to start the cleanup effort passed unanimously.
Democrats have suspended campaigning and dropped plans for a bruising budget battle with the White House. To all appearances, the whole focus of government is simply to get the country back on its feet.
Still, many members are not satisfied with how President Bush has handled the crisis so far. They complain (off camera) about hours of aimless drift last Tuesday, as top congressional leaders were swept off to secure locations, while the others were left to manage as they could. They don't like briefings that don't say much, and many feel they are being left out of the loop.
But they don't want to make these points now.
"We have heard complaints about the eloquence of our president and his stature - and those commentaries may at some time be warranted, but not now," says Rep. Mark Foley (R) of Florida. "Our nation needs to remain solidly together to fight evil forces."
The biggest issue where debate is on hold is how much of a say Congress should have in how the nation responds to an attack on its own soil.
The United States was the first nation to give the power to make war to the legislative branch, rather than exclusively to the executive. It would be "one effectual check to the dog of war," wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1789. In practice, use of the war power has often been one of the most contentious issues between the president and Congress.
The vote to support a Persian Gulf resolution after the August 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq was long and difficult. For months, President Bush refused to acknowledge that the Congress even had a role. In the end, the resolution passed over the objection of 230 lawmakers.
In Friday's vote giving the president authority to use force against terrorists, the sole dissenter cited several concerns.
"We have to have an exit strategy. We cannot allow this cycle of violence to escalate," says Rep. Barbara Lee (D) of California, who has had to increase security around her office since her criticized "nay" vote. "I'm not the only one who believes this," she told the Monitor. "To rush into military action is not going to deter any more terrorist attacks."
Some Democrats who supported the resolution said they did so only because it retained an important 60-day limit on military action without further congressional approval.
"Congress needs to take seriously its responsibility ... not give up its rights to the president," says Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D) of Texas.
In the runup to the vote for a $40 billion supplemental appropriation, Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin threatened to oppose the bill unless Congress had more say over how the money would be spent.
A major early concern will be shoring up the economy, especially the airline and insurance industries. A $15 billion rescue package for airlines stalled Friday, when some House Democrats said the bill had not had adequate vetting. An economic stimulus package, to be considered later this week, could include controversial cuts in capital-gains taxes.
Other members on both sides of the aisle are proposing antiterrorist laws, including enhanced technology for screening passengers or eavesdropping on suspects' conversations. The infringement of civil liberties involved in some of these moves will also stir controversy.
"We must insist that our civil liberties are not attacked," says Nancy Pelosi (D) of California, the ranking member on the House Select Committee on Intelligence.
A strong debate can also be expected when the Senate takes up the defense appropriations bill this week, especially over Bush's missile-defense plan. Some see such a high-tech system as futile when low-tech terrorism can be so deadly.