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Liberal Gephardt Sides With Bush on Iraq War Resolution

October 03, 2002|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — By winning the blessing of the liberal House Democratic leader, President Bush scored a coup Wednesday in his drive for a strong show of bipartisan support for a war resolution to confront Saddam Hussein.

The development was all the more significant because House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) was one of many in his party who opposed the 1991 Persian Gulf War resolution.

With his appearance in the Rose Garden, endorsing the resolution alongside the president and Republican congressional leaders, Gephardt broke definitively from many in the liberal base of his party who remain unpersuaded of the need for a new Gulf War. He also won effusive praise from the conservative Republicans who usually denounce him as a left-wing zealot.

Yet Gephardt's conversion from dove to hawk was not sudden. As early as June, he had advocated the use of military force, if necessary, to oust the Iraqi president.

In a brief interview Wednesday, the minority leader said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had jolted his world view. "In the end, 9/11 changed everything," he said. "Our highest responsibility is to do everything we can to prevent further acts of terrorism in the United States, especially with weapons of mass destruction."

Politics, he insisted, was not a factor in his decision.

Inevitably, however, Gephardt's vote on the Iraq resolution, expected to come next week to the House floor, will be a factor if he seeks the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004.

Some potential rivals, such as Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina, also have aligned themselves with Bush on Iraq. Others have been skeptical and noncommittal (Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts) or critical (former Vice President Al Gore and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean).

Gephardt's move, although it had been telegraphed in recent days, drew sharp reactions from Democrats on both sides of the Capitol.

Some previously skeptical of the administration's war plans were won over, saying the resolution that Bush first proposed had been altered significantly through Gephardt's participation in the negotiations.

These Democrats pointed to language in the revised resolution that supports efforts to end the crisis diplomatically, defines the scope of the authorization of use of military force and requires the president to report to Congress on diplomatic efforts, the war on terrorism, any military operations in Iraq and plans for reconstruction and peacekeeping.

Much of the revised language attempted to address criticism of the original resolution by senior Democrats, including Reps. Ike Skelton of Missouri, John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina and John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania--leaders on defense matters whose support would be crucial.

Some critics of the administration, however, fumed at Wednesday's developments. And some Senate Democrats who were seeking to modify the proposal even further, such as Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, were left in the lurch.

Gephardt said he could not predict how many in his party would vote for the measure. On such "life and death" decisions, he said, all members had to make up their own minds. "I respect what everybody decides," he said. "That's the way we have to do this."

And he acknowledged uncertainty himself. "We all see through the glass darkly," he said. "None of us knows the truth. None of us knows how this is going to come out."

Of the 208 House Democrats, a majority will support the resolution when it comes to a vote, aides to the leadership believe. If that occurs, it would mark a shift for the party.

In January 1991, 86 House Democrats voted for the Gulf War resolution and 179--including Gephardt and other party leaders--voted against it. Of those Democrats who are still in the House, 50 opposed the Gulf War and 23 supported it.

As Congress prepares for another momentous war debate, the fissures in a party that had in years past divided on military conflicts in Vietnam, Central America and the Persian Gulf were reappearing Wednesday.

For example, Reps. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) and Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who went to Baghdad last weekend to lobby for a peaceful end to the conflict, reiterated their view that a war resolution is premature.

Bonior, a former House minority whip, called the move toward war "a grave, grave mistake" that would undermine the ongoing U.S. battle against terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda.

Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Atherton), another administration critic, said she feared that Gephardt's alliance with Bush would diminish the effect of next week's floor debate. "I would have much preferred to have debated in eloquent, passionate voices what was wrong with the president's resolution," Eshoo said. "We can still speak, and we're going to. But [Gephardt's decision] changes the color" of the debate.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), however, said he was "strongly inclined" to support the resolution, and he applauded the minority leader. "He's done a superb job under difficult circumstances," Schiff said. "Our caucus is very deeply split. That's a challenge to represent as a leader."

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