There is little doubt that Congress will give President Bush a resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iraq. What's at stake now are the terms of that resolution and, possibly, the terms of the 2004 presidential race.
Ever since the Sept. 11 attacks, Democrats have fought to maintain the appearance of "no daylight" between them and the president on the priority of defense of the nation, despite deep divisions on that issue within their ranks.
Publicly, leading Democrats complain that the White House is using the issue for political gain in November elections. Privately, some wonder whether they were duped into demanding that the Bush administration bring its case to the Congress. Democrats had wanted to spend the fall talking about the economy, Social Security, and healthcare. Instead, they've been talking about Iraq.
But all that is past. With a great debate at hand and a vote in Congress next week, there's no avoiding a recorded vote on the terms of a US military engagement in Iraq. That vote could be grist for campaign spots for years to come, especially for those aspiring to higher office.
The proposed new resolution gives the president the authority to take military action in Iraq if Saddam Hussein fails to comply with UN Security Council mandates, including economic sanctions, human rights abuses, and accounting for missing Gulf War prisoners. It also requires the president to notify Congress that diplomatic efforts have failed before launching an attack or "as soon thereafter as may be feasible, but no later than 48 hours."
The new draft resolution also limits to Iraq the authorization to use force. The president's original draft resolution would have allowed use of force to "restore international peace and security in the region," a provision that many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said was too sweeping in scope.
Among Democratic presidential hopefuls, House minority leader Dick Gephardt staked out his decision early. An all-but-announced presidential contender in 2004, he became one of the leading proponents of military action in Iraq "diplomatically if we can, militarily if we must."
"After 12 years of Saddam Hussein's defiance of United Nations resolutions, his regime's new offer to admit inspectors does not address my concerns about the threat he poses to the United States and the international community," he said.
It was his agreement to the latest revision of a resolution of force late Tuesday night that allowed Mr. Bush to claim bipartisan support for his proposal. It also derailed hearings in the Senate on a bipartisan compromise that had been gaining momentum. And it froze out Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, another presidential prospect for 2004.
"This is all about 2004 Democratic presidential politics, not the 2002 Iraq debate," says Marshall Wittmann, an analyst at the Hudson Institute. "Gephardt early threw his lot in on the side of being a hawk, and Daschle is a more accurate reflection of the deep ambiguity in the Democratic caucus when it comes to Iraq, and the two approaches are under full and open display."
In the House, more than 70 Democrats had backed a petition to delay a vote for more debate. A tighter group of 40 oppose any military intervention. "I'm surprised that Mr. Gephardt embraced the president so early on, but I still hope we can have an extensive debate on this issue," says Rep. Maxine Waters (D) of California, who opposes the resolution in its current form.
The battle on the Senate side is likely to be more vigorously contested. The debate will focus on how far to push the president on forming an international coalition before taking military action. Some Democrats will also push for stronger language on congressional oversight.
Nearly half the Democratic caucus appears ready to sign on to the resolution in its current form. On Wednesday, a bipartisan group including Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, John McCain (R) of Arizona, John Warner (R) of Virginia, and Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana introduced the same resolution that will be taken up in the House. Supporters said it aimed to "strengthen the president's hand as commander in chief if Saddam does not comply or the United Nations is not willing to take action to enforce its order."
It also aims to meet concerns in the caucus that diplomatic efforts were not adequately pursued. "The language is constructed ambiguity, which allows both sides to claim victory," says Senator Bayh. He says 20 to 25 Democrats are prepared to support this version.
The holdouts want to make sure that a focus on Iraq does not detract from the ongoing international effort against terrorism. Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan wants to require the administration to establish an international coalition at least concerning the financing the war before making a military move.
Senator Daschle says he expects Democrats to also argue for a clearer assessment of Bush plans for reconstruction of a post-Saddam Iraq. But he concedes that the Senate will adopt a bipartisan use-of-force resolution.