WASHINGTON — President Bush on Wednesday reached agreement with a bipartisan phalanx of congressional leaders on a tough resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, a major breakthrough in his effort to unify lawmakers behind his challenge to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The agreement fell short of Bush's hopes that top U.S. officials would, as he has put it, "speak with one voice" on Iraq. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and some other key Senate Democrats refused to endorse the compromise and continued to push for more restrictions on Bush's latitude to wage war.
But the breadth of support behind the compromise--those embracing it included House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), as well as GOP leaders--puts enormous pressure on Democratic holdouts to rally behind the president.
"The statement of support from the Congress will show to friend and enemy alike the resolve of the United States," Bush said as he unveiled the compromise at a Rose Garden ceremony, flanked by Democratic and Republican supporters.
Although many in Congress hope Bush will not exercise the military option Congress is expected to authorize, he said it may become inevitable if Hussein does not disarm. "If he persists in his defiance, the use of force may become unavoidable," Bush said.
The resolution, as reworked, would give Bush the essential elements of his initial request: the authority to wage a unilateral, preemptive war against Iraq, regardless whether the United Nations gives him the go-ahead.
"The resolution does not tie the president's hands," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "It supports the president's effort to work with the United Nations, but it doesn't require him to seek U.N. approval first."
But Bush did make some concessions to congressional critics by agreeing to certify to Congress that any military action came only after he had exhausted diplomatic options, and that an attack on Iraq would not set back ongoing efforts to combat terrorism.
The agreement clears the way for a broad bipartisan vote next week in the House in support of Bush's initiative. The House International Relations Committee began debate on the compromise Wednesday; the session was briefly interrupted by antiwar protesters crying, "No war in Iraq!"
The panel was expected to vote today to send the bill to the full House for what is likely to be two or three days of debate.
The debate likely will be more divisive in the Senate, which was supposed to take up the issue Wednesday but postponed debate at least until today.
The Senate debate is expected to focus on two alternatives to the compromise announced at the White House. One, by Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), would authorize the use of force only to disarm Hussein, not depose him, as Bush has sought. A more dovish alternative by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) would authorize U.S. military action only in conjunction with U.N. approval.
But even Biden said the president was likely to get his way.
"I'm a realist," said Biden. "The president is going to be saying: 'Are you with me or against me?' That's a hard call."
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), who backed the compromise, told Bush at the ceremony that whatever debate Congress may have about alternatives, the president's proposal would be approved by margins wider than given the resolution that authorized military action against Iraq in 1991, when his father was president.
The Senate adopted that resolution, 52 to 47; the House vote was 250 to 183.
"Mr. President, we delivered for your father; we will deliver for you," Warner said.
The compromise resolution authorizes Bush to use force "as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to defend the national security of the U.S. against the continuing threat posed by Iraq," and to enforce U.N. resolutions regarding Iraq.
That narrows the focus to Iraq--not the region, as had been the case in Bush's original proposal.
In other concessions to congressional critics, the resolution requires Bush to report to Congress every 60 days on the status of the face-off with Iraq. And it requires Bush to tell Congress--no later than 48 hours after he uses military force--that he did so only after determining that further diplomatic efforts would be fruitless and that the attack is "consistent" with the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign.
Those changes were enough to win the embrace of Gephardt, who for months has urged a hawkish posture toward Iraq. Gephardt's endorsement gave the compromise powerful momentum that left Daschle and other Democratic skeptics increasingly isolated.
Gephardt has been prominently mentioned as a prospective Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, and joining him at the ceremony were two others on that list--Lieberman and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.).