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In London, war debate roars; Washington's whispers

Parliament prods Blair, while Congress considers how to remember Lewis, Clark.

By , Mark Rice-Oxley / February 28, 2003


In London, British lawmakers have been ripping into Prime Minister Tony Blair with Edwardian precision over the possible war in Iraq. In Washington, the US Congress is fulminating over a judicial nominee few Americans have ever heard of and debating the design of the US 5-cent coin.

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Therein lies a tale of two legislative bodies that reveals striking differences, on the brink of war, between nations that have been breeding grounds and bulwarks of modern democracy.

This week saw nearly one-third of Mr. Blair's Labour Party members of Parliament break ranks with him on a central issue: whether a new UN resolution is needed to justify military action in Iraq. Blair won, but by a margin of just 293-199.

At that moment, across the Atlantic, US lawmakers were girding for a vote of their own: on whether or not to remove Thomas Jefferson and his home, Monticello, from the 5-cent coin. Despite what one Virginia representative described as an "uproar" in Jefferson country, the House of Representatives decided to bump the third US president until 2006, and instead use the nickel to commemorate the Lewis and Clark expedition.

If US lawmakers saw any irony in their agenda, few have chosen to call attention to the fact.

"This Chamber is, for the most part, silent - ominously, dreadfully silent. There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war," the Senate's senior Democrat, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, lamented earlier this month.

Congressional leaders have, or course, talked about the possibility of war for months. But while Blair has seen his worst Labour Party mutiny since he came to power in 1997, Mr. Bush has received little criticism or questioning from America's erstwhile legislative lions.

This has remained true in recent weeks despite an increasingly vocal antiwar movement in US streets.

"The irony is that in the House of Commons, where party discipline is supposed to be ironclad, you had major defections from Tony Blair; whereas in the US, where local issues are supposed to be a strong counterpoint to party discipline, you have had almost a reversal of roles," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "The US Congress is behaving like the House of Commons and reverse."

Britain, too, has seen street protests, the largest in its history, which is one reason many members of Parliament are opposed to following American troops lock step into the streets of Baghdad - especially without a fuller effort to justify such action and ponder its consequences.

"We're talking about thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of innocent lives lost; we're talking about the alienation of moderate Muslim opinion across the world," said Chris Smith, a former member of Blair's Cabinet, who sponsored an amendment that the government had not proved a case for war in Iraq. He says it would be a mistake to commit forces "if there is not a full-hearted endorsement specifically for military action by the [UN] Security Council."

Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael described watching 1,000 of his constituents take to the streets to protest war in Iraq. "The people who took to the streets to demonstrate were not wild-eyed extremists.... They were teachers, shopkeepers, fishermen, housekeepers," he said.