In Congress, quiet questions on war

Democrats in awkward role as Bush team heads to Hill.

After weeks of pressing the Bush administration to explain its stand on Iraq and to let the legislative branch have a say, Congress got its way – and many lawmakers are wondering what hit them

The Bush administration is suddenly speaking with one voice. Meanwhile Congress, beneath a din of varying views, risks being reduced to asking how it can help.

The transformation has stunned many in Congress who had come to accept the view of an administration at odds and adrift. Lawmakers of both parties had urged President Bush to get his house in order.

Then, suddenly, he did. In what some members of Congress are already calling a "historic" speech, Mr. Bush called on the United Nations to "show some backbone" and enforce its own resolutions on Iraq. Now, the administration is turning the same challenge on the US Congress.

It begins this week, as top Bush officials meet to answer questions on Iraq before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. At least since June, the White House had been resisting congressional calls to send top officials to explain the policy on Iraq. Now, Bush is calling on Congress to vote support for the administration, even before the UN process is exhausted.

"If I were running for office, I'm not sure how I'd explain to the American people – say, 'Vote for me, and, oh, by the way, on a matter of national security, I think I'm going to wait for somebody else to act,' " the president said Friday.

For Democrats, the White House decision to call the question on Iraq couldn't have come at a worse time. What they had hoped to be talking about in the runup to Nov. 5 elections are the issues the experts say they can win on: the slow economy, corporate accountability, healthcare.

Instead, Democrats are getting locked into a high-profile dialogue over national security that pits 535 voices against the resources and prestige of the president as commander in chief. Historically, it's an unequal match.

"It's very difficult to imagine that a majority of Democrats will go on record opposing a military measure that the president says is necessary to defend national security," says Marshall Wittmann, a congressional analyst at the Hudson Institute.

Still, the White House could overplay its hand. Even GOP supporters of military action complain that the administration's top secret briefings don't include much more than published media reports, sometimes less.

"Before we can all agree to make an intelligent judgment, we have to have all the intelligence," said Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota.

Already, rifts are appearing in Democratic ranks over how far to support the president.

House minority leader Richard Gephardt, a likely presidential contender in 2004, was one of the first high-ranking Democrats to endorse the prospect of military action. "Our No. 1 and highest responsibility as American citizens is to keep American citizens safe from weapons of mass destruction ... diplomatically if we can, militarily if we must," he said.

Other Democrats are looking for ways to continue to press the administration to make its case, while avoiding an outright break with the White House on how to proceed. Before voting to authorize a military strike, Democrats want a chance to vote full support for the president's speech at the United Nations.

"I don't want a 54-49 vote.... I want a 100 to nothing vote," said Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The greater the show of that support [to the world], the greater leverage" Bush has, he said.

Many Democrats also favor pushing off a vote on military action until a lame-duck session after the elections or even until the next Congress. Supporters of this strategy cite the precedent of the first Bush administration, which did not push for a vote on the Gulf War until the after midterm elections in 1990. The vote to authorize force took place as the first order of business of the new Congress in January 1991.

Senate Democrats hope to use the time to question administration officials more publicly on the case for – and likely scope of – any military action ahead. Already, Democrats on the Select Committee on Intelligence are pressing the White House to explain why it never sought a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq – a report typically used to assess threats.

THE Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to pursue some of the military objections to the prospect of an extended war in Iraq. Retired military officials, often the most outspoken critics of military action, are also expected to get into this debate. "The military is worried that this next war won't be a replay of 1991. They will have to fight in cities and, even if everything is successful, they will have to occupy Iraq and rebuild a nation, which they hate to do," says Richard Betts, a professor at Columbia University in New York.

Another issue Congress will likely explore is whether a new engagement with Iraq undermines the ongoing war on terror or introduces risks of its own. "The biggest risk for attacking now and overthrowing Saddam Hussein is that it raises the odds that weapons of mass destruction could be used against American cities now," adds Mr. Betts.

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