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Senate Sets Debate on War Plans


WASHINGTON — A divided Senate is preparing to open a landmark debate over whether to authorize military action against Iraq, a move that could transform decades of U.S. defense policy, roil domestic politics just a month before congressional elections and open the way for an international conflict of potentially vast cost.

The debate, which could begin as early as today, will force the Senate to set aside virtually all other business for days, clearing the decks for the kind of deliberation about war and peace that has not consumed Capitol Hill since the divisive vote to authorize the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

The final wording of the resolution Congress will consider was still being negotiated Tuesday. President Bush has made it clear that he will settle for no less than broad latitude to act, regardless whether he secures the United Nations' backing.

"I don't want to get a resolution which ties my hands," Bush said Tuesday, criticizing a bipartisan proposal by leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to focus the use of force more narrowly than he wants.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 03, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 4 inches; 146 words Type of Material: Correction
War plan debate--Due to a production error, some copies of Wednesday's Valley Edition did not contain the first several paragraphs of a Page 1 story about the Senate preparing to debate authorizing military action against Iraq. To see the entire text of the story, go to this address at The Times' Web site:

Bush is scheduled to meet with top Senate and House leaders today in hopes of reaching an agreement on the resolution's final wording.

Senior aides said a deal may be struck between the White House, House Republican leaders and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who has been far more hawkish about Iraq than other leading Democrats.

"We're very close," said a senior Gephardt aide.

That would make for easy House passage of the resolution but leave open the prospect of a more contentious debate in the Senate.

"We're not there yet," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said of the push for compromise wording on the resolution.

Almost lost in the jockeying over the resolution's fine points is that Congress is poised to, in effect, endorse a historic shift in U.S. strategy--moving from the Cold War reliance on deterrence and arms control to an approach that accepts preemptive attack as a legitimate way to defend against terrorists and regimes suspected of having weapons of mass destruction that could pose a threat to the United States.

"This is the beginning of a real argument about what America should do in the post-9/11 era," said John Hulsman, a foreign policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

"After 10 years of sleepwalking through victory in the Cold War, we've woken up to the fact that the end of history has not yet come," he said.

The basic question facing Congress is not whether but how the United States will counter the perceived threat of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime--a more controversial question than when Bush struck Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

There is little doubt about the outcome of Congress' vote; the main question is whether Bush wins by a large margin or an overwhelming one. Still, there is an edgy uncertainty in the halls of Congress as each lawmaker prepares to take a stand.

Although most are inclined to rally behind Bush, many lawmakers--like many of their most vocal constituents--are uneasy about launching a unilateral attack without broad international support or further diplomatic initiatives. Polls show that many voters have the same view.

"Many Americans also have questions about the urgency of the threat and the risks we face from Iraq," said Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.). "Not the threat itself, but the urgency of the threat."

That puts Congress, usually a reactive institution, in the unusual position of taking the political risk of running ahead of public opinion. But with only a month to go before crucial midterm congressional elections, it is clear that many Democrats have concluded that the political risk of opposing Bush is even greater than the risks of backing a military venture about which they have many questions. Some lawmakers fear that the political backdrop of the debate will keep it from becoming a genuine give-and-take about lofty policy alternatives.

"I don't believe you are going to see the Senate at its best," said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.).

Other critics say that the political pressure on Democrats to mute their opposition and suppress their reservations will produce a debate far less probing than in 1991, when Congress approved a much less sweeping military authorization.

"They had a huge debate over a very limited resolution" in 1991, said Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank. "We will have a puny debate over whether the U.S. can go preemptively to war."

Although the Senate may begin debate today or Thursday, the final climactic votes will not come until next week--both because senators are expected to speak at length and because many lawmakers will be traveling to Hawaii for a Friday funeral for Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii).

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