In London, war debate roars; Washington's whispers

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

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.

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.

IT'S about 1:13 p.m. in Washington when the member from Orkney and Shetland concludes his remarks. The House - not yet into its 5-cent coin debate - is considering whether or not to encourage people to celebrate the 140th anniversary of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) notes that he recently had the opportunity to appear in the Civil War movie "Gods and Generals" and understands "the suffering" that war entails: "Now our nation stands on the brink of another war that will bring suffering as all wars do, but will have noble ends: the destruction of evil." He cites a line from the film: "War is a scourge, but so is slavery." As he speaks, phone lines all over Capitol Hill are down because of the volume of calls from peace protesters, who targeted the Congress on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, lawmakers were carrying on an unusual filibuster on a presidential judicial nominee. Both parties blamed the other for the impasse since Feb. 5 on the nomination of Miguel Estrada to US appellate bench.

For Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, filling out those long stretches of filibuster (a term Democrats prefer not to use) to a near-empty chamber required frequent pauses to study a spiral notebook with the lowdown on Mr. Estrada. It includes, for example, the observation that while Estrada did edit the Harvard Law Review, he was not the main editor: There were, in fact, 70 law students who also edited the review at the same time, said Mr. Leahy, looking up for emphasis. Moreover, a nominee who had actually supervised all those law students never got a hearing when Republicans controlled the committee. The "debate" goes on past midnight.

So, why do American lawmakers seem to be fiddling while Brits fume?

Analysts point to several explanations. One is that Sept. 11 profoundly shifted the terms of foreign-policy debate in the United States. "Before 9/11, a vote against going to war might have courted unpopularity, but it didn't carry with it a suggestion of lack of patriotism or concern about the national security of America," says Mr. Baker of Rutgers.

The last time Congress debated the nation's policy on the use of force in Iraq Oct. was 11, 2002, just before Bush made his case to the United Nations - and few lawmakers are eager to take it up again.

Democrats worry that a new debate and vote on the war would give President Bush and Republicans cover in the next election if the war goes badly. Instead, Democrats are delivering a spate of nuanced position papers on the war

"You won't see a debate officially on the floor of the Senate or House, but unofficially and publicly in speeches, there is quite a bit of debate about it," says Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, just back from trip to South Korea with Secretary of State Colin Powell. He credits such behind-the-scenes pressure with convincing the Bush administration that it needed more international support before going to war.

The trouble is, he adds, these behind-the-scenes discussions don't "serve the American people" as well as a debate on the floor of the Senate.

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