WASHINGTON — The Democratic-controlled Congress, closing ranks behind President Bush at a crucial moment in American history, voted Saturday to authorize U.S. troops to attack Iraq as early as Wednesday.
Bush's victory was decisive and bipartisan, even though the authorization was strongly opposed by the Democratic leadership and most aspirants for the Democratic presidential nomination. Many Democrats abandoned their party leaders, and Republicans were nearly unanimous in support of the President.
The Senate adopted the resolution 52 to 47; the House vote was 250 to 183.
The action was the most explicit authorization of war by Congress since the Tonkin Gulf Resolution approved U.S. military involvement in Vietnam in 1964. And it was a pivotal event in the presidency of George Bush, who already has committed nearly 400,000 American troops to the Persian Gulf.
Before approving the joint resolution authorizing use of force, the House and Senate each soundly rejected an alternative measure proposed by the Democratic leadership that called on Bush to continue relying on economic sanctions instead. The sanctions resolution lost 53 to 46 in the Senate and 250 to 183 in the House.
At the White House, Bush said the congressional authorization will demonstrate to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein the resolve of the United States to use force if Iraq fails to withdraw from Kuwait by midnight Tuesday, the deadline imposed by the United Nations.
"Peace is everyone's goal," Bush said. "Peace is in everyone's prayers. But it is for Iraq to decide."
Bush, who watched some of the debate on television, congratulated Congress for its decorum and for demonstrating neither the rancor nor the jubilation that often follow a hard-fought partisan contest.
While Bush said he still hopes a military confrontation can be averted, there appeared to be little doubt among members of Congress that the nation is on the brink of war. "I am afraid the decision has already been made for a massive use of force," said Sen. Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.).
Nor was there any doubt expressed that the United States would win.
Nevertheless, despite the decisive margin of support for the President's policy, it was clear that most members of Congress--including many who voted to authorize force--feel that Bush would be making a tragic mistake to expend thousands of American lives to liberate Kuwait.
"No one wants war," said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who lost the use of his right arm in World War II. "No one abhors war more than those of us who have fought in one. No one wants a single American--or for that matter, a single Iraqi--to die."
Many lawmakers cautioned Bush that it would be foolish to go to war without a national consensus favoring such action. "Even if you win today, you still lose," declared Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). "The nation is divided on this issue."
The vote came as the climax of three days of emotional debate--the longest House debate, in fact, in the history of that chamber. But the outcome was never in doubt, and there was a sense of solemn resignation as members cast what many said was the toughest vote of their political careers.
"I've cast 12,822 votes during my 39 years in Congress," remarked Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.). "But this vote is the most important vote that I shall have cast in my career."
The vote marked the beginning of a Senate career of John Seymour (R-Calif.), who was sworn in earlier this week as Gov. Pete Wilson's successor. He voted with the President. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), who would have opposed Bush had he not been undergoing treatment for prostate cancer in California, was the only absent senator.
Some speakers stressed that the three-page resolution adopted by Congress is tantamount to a declaration of war, even though it was not technically drafted as one. Based on the U.N. Security Council resolution adopted Nov. 29, it gives the President authorization to use force any time after Tuesday, but only if he notifies Congress that his diplomatic efforts have failed.
Even though the United States has been involved in about 200 armed conflicts, the Congress has formally declared war only five times: against Great Britain in 1812, Mexico in 1846 and Spain in 1898, as well as in the two world wars.
In the past, when Congress has authorized the use of military force, the vote usually has been overwhelming. According to Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), the Senate vote was the narrowest margin since authorization of the War of 1812.
Bush's resolution was legally similar to the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which permitted President Lyndon B. Johnson to escalate the war in Vietnam. And some Democrats argued that Bush has deceived Congress about the threat to U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf, much as they contend that Johnson exaggerated the threat to American forces in Vietnam.