Congress's show of power on war in Iraq
Lawmakers ask tough questions, but few are likely to oppose Bush. Timing remains in doubt.
WASHINGTON — The last time the Congress took a hard look at the evidence for taking up arms against Iraq, in 1991, it produced a long, emotional debate and a divided vote that many lawmakers came to regret.
That is not the scenario anyone expects, as a second Bush administration lays out its case for "regime change" in Baghdad to Congress and the world.
The difference is 9/11, which has nearly silenced the lingering Vietnam-era doubts that infused congressional debates leading up to the 1991 Gulf War.
Today there is little doubt that Congress will eventually approve a resolution to use force, even though lawmakers are finding ways to ask tough questions that could shape how such a conflict begins or ends.
At the very least, members of Congress are demanding a say in whether the nation goes to war. In August, members of the Bush team were explaining why there was no legal requirement to consult Congress. When that provoked strong opposition in Congress, including from top Republicans, the White House backed down and committed to seeking congressional support for military action.
At the same time, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle came back to Washington last week demanding that the Bush administration make its case against Iraq to Congress and to the international community and to make it with one voice.
Many again including top Republicans were also weary of a constant drip, drip of leaked war plans as well as the open rifts within the administration over how to pursue them. A week ago they told President Bush that it needed to stop. And, for the moment, it has.
While most lawmakers are now withholding comment until the President makes his case to the United Nations tomorrow, many of the main lines of the debate to come are already clear.
One of the most important will be the timing of a vote authorizing the president to use force in Iraq. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota signaled early on that he preferred a vote after the November elections to ensure full and adequate deliberations. He adds that a late vote would also reassure "skeptics out there" that the President is not using Iraq to influence this fall's midterm elections.
Many Democrats are convinced that a constant drumbeat of war will deflect the attention of voters in very close House and Senate races from the issue Democrats would prefer to discuss the slumping economy.
At the same time, other Democrats are stepping up pressure on the administration to make sure that all efforts to contain Iraq are exhausted before a military option is pursued. Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, will be convening hearings later this month on this issue. Yesterday, the House Armed Services Committee scheduled initial hearings on whether inspections can be effective in monitoring whether Iraq's has weapons of mass destruction.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware is urging the president to focus more effort on building an international coalition against Saddam, much as his father did in the runup to the Gulf War. Last week, he urged Bush to make it clear that this is the world's problem, and the US should not go it alone in solving it. At a Monitor breakfast last week, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut reiterated this view. "It would be a mistake for us to do this alone. We need allies in the Arab world," he said.
But even as they raise these concerns, most Democrats are careful to not challenge the President's judgment directly on the extent of the threat that Iraq poses to national security. Instead, many say they are conveying concerns from their constituents.
In one of the first broad challenges to administration policy, Sen. Zell Miller (D) of Georgia last week noted that he was convinced of the need for a regime change. But "in the spirit of trying to get a better explanation for the folks back home," he asked: "Even if Saddam Hussein has nukes, does he have the capability to reach New York or Los Angeles?" "The old Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear missiles for decades, and yet we didn't get into a war with the Soviets. Why is Iraq different?" "Who will join us in this war and what share will they be willing to bear?" "What happens after we take out Hussein?"
One issue that lawmakers are no longer emphasizing in their discussions with the administration is the need to prove a link between Saddam Hussein and last year's terrorist attacks. The joint resolution that Congress passed immediately after 9/11 authorized the president to use "all force necessary" to bring to justice those nations, organizations, and people responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Lawmakers at the time said they would hold the administration to demonstrating that link.
But since then, the administration has all but abandoned that claim, and it's not clear that lawmakers will insist upon it.
"The administration is reframing 9/11 in terms of Iraq. And that does a disservice to the memory of those who were lost a year ago and to their families who are still grieving and to our nation, still mourning," says Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio, who describes himself as a lone bird on a wire in his opposition to a war with Iraq.
But he adds that as the debate proceeds, that could change. "There are members of Congress who are ready to step forward to express their skepticism and their opposition to going to war with Iraq, and you will be hearing from them within the next week," he adds.