Congress and Presidents: often uneasy allies in war

Congress rallies around commander in chief as military action opens, with reservations.

As Congress hemmed and hawed, the debate in the Senate became stormy. But in the end, the president was given the authority he needed to lead the nation into battle.

Congress and the war with Iraq? Try 1846, when President Polk launched the Mexican War to ensure the annexation of Texas.

The Constitution divides the war powers between Congress and the president, and there have been occasions when Congress led the charge - but not lately. The Continental Congress directed the Revolutionary War, and an expansionist Congress dragged President McKinley into the war with Spain in 1898.

But the world wars of the 20th century enhanced presidential powers dramatically, and wartime Congresses have had a tough time weighing in ever since. The long march toward war in Iraq is no exception.

For the US Congress, the circle on this war closed months ago, after the House and 77 members of the Senate voted on Oct. 11 to give the president authority to use force in Iraq at a time of his choosing. Despite considerable doubts on Capitol Hill as to this wisdom of this course, it hasn't been seriously challenged since.

"It's really important to understand that 9/11 built a public-opinion floor under President Bush that has no parallel in modern American history," says Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University.

The War Powers Resolution was enacted in 1973 to give Congress a sure voice in whether or not the nation goes to war. With the Vietnam War still in mind, lawmakers wanted to make sure they were never drawn into a war without informed consent again. President Nixon vetoed it, and Congress overrode the veto. But no president since has ever admitted its constitutionality.

Moreover, while such a resolution formally gives Congress the right to withdraw support for a war, it's unlikely that lawmakers would do so. It would look too much like withdrawing support for troops in the field, experts say. That's why, despite growing opposition abroad and a vocal peace movement at home, Capitol Hill has not reengaged the issue of the war since its October vote.

That early vote on the issue is, perhaps, a reaction to the tensions between Congress and the Oval Office in the first Gulf War.

In that war, President Bush avoided asking Congress for authority to use force to drive Iraq out of Kuwait until the very last minute. When the vote finally came on Jan. 12, 1991, some 360,000 US troops were already in the region. Many in Congress argued the request came too late.

A second Bush administration aimed to lock up congressional consent well before the military buildup began, and Congress granted it. Bush needed a strong showing of congressional support to leverage his bid for a new United Nations resolution on Iraq, and got it.

But the lopsided votes in the House and Senate on Oct. 11, 2002, masked how difficult this decision was for many members, especially Democrats. For many lawmakers, the cost of opposition to the 1991 Gulf War still lingered. Right up until the war began on Jan. 16, Democrats were warning that the body bags would pile up at a rate of 3,000 a day, and that 1 in 4 Americans in that war would die.

The relative ease of the US victory in 1991 cost the Democrats credibility on defense issues.

Despite the misgivings of many, especially Democrats, lawmakers counted down the final hours toward this war with calls for the administration to produce estimates of the cost of the conflict and its aftermath.

But Democrats worry that the biggest cost will be the blow to America's standing in the world of nations. In comments from the floor on Wednesday, Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia said, "Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned. Instead of isolating Saddam Hussein, we seem to have isolated ourselves," he said, to rare applause from the floor.

In response, Sen. John McCain of Arizona invoked President Wilson, saying that America was about to "again ... contribute to the freedom and liberty of the world."

"Perhaps the Senator from West Virginia is right," he added. "Events will prove one of us right in the next few days."

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