WASHINGTON — Signs of a new optimism in the war on drugs emerged Friday as Senate Democrats and Bush Administration officials said they were convinced that the United States had turned the corner at last in its anti-drug fight.
The apparent consensus, a striking reversal from the partisan bickering that dominated the issue a few months ago, was evident in separate assertions by drug czar William J. Bennett and his chief Democratic adversary that the nation was "winning" the war, in part because of a newly assertive anti-drug strategy.
Neither Bennett nor Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the chief architects of rival proposals whose combined effect has been a dramatic increase in federal anti-drug spending, presented any new evidence that the expenditures had produced a tangible result.
But both said it appeared that a watershed had been crossed, expressing confidence that public opinion had turned decisively in recent months against drugs and those who use them. Victory, which once seemed almost beyond reach, now appeared conceivable, they said.
And slightly more than a year after President Bush raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill with his pledge that "this scourge will end," there were no signs Friday at the first congressional test of his latest anti-drug proposal that members of the Senate Judiciary Committee were inclined to challenge such optimism.
At a committee hearing, Democrats and Republicans alike listened approvingly as Bennett likened the anti-drug fight to World War II. "We've moved beyond Midway," he declared, referring to the battle that was the turning point in the U.S. campaign in the Pacific.
"I agree," Biden interjected at one point. "We're winning."
Both sides expressed some caution in their assessments, however, warning of ills that might persist even if there is steady improvement in the drug situation. "To a lot of people, it won't feel like winning," Bennett said. "There'll still be more casualties."
In addition, enduring differences between the two sides over the appropriate level and priorities for anti-drug spending added an element of contention to the proceedings, making clear that further battles will occur over the issue.
But in what appeared in part to be an effort to persuade voters there has been a benefit to the dramatic increases in anti-drug spending--and that further gains could be won through proposed new increases--attention was kept focused on what Biden described as an "initial victory" in the anti-drug effort.
Bennett, who confessed 10 months ago that he was not certain of victory in the drug war, declared in his opening statement Friday: "My view has changed."
"The war is by no means over," he said, "but it is clearly winnable, and the momentum, I think, is shifting our way. . . . The scourge is beginning to pass."
As evidence, the drug czar pointed to recorded declines in drug use and drug arrests and to increases in drug seizures. But he acknowledged that those statistics predated the inception of the new Bush Administration strategy, which took effect just four months ago.
Bennett, who as director of national drug control policy is the Administration's top anti-drug official, appeared before the committee to advocate a $10.6-billion anti-drug budget, a 12% increase from this year's $9.5-billion level.
Biden, chairman of the committee, has crafted an alternative Democratic strategy that proposes spending of $14.6 billion.
In what emerged Friday as the critical difference between the plans, the Democratic proposal would more than double funding to the Department of Education so that the agency could provide anti-drug programs for all of the nation's schoolchildren.
By contrast, the Administration plan would provide drug education in schools to only 40% of students. When questioned about the shortfall, Bennett said he regarded such educational programs as no more than a "helpful auxiliary" to other, more hard-headed efforts to combat drug use among young people.