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Senate Debates as House Panel OKs Iraq Measure

October 04, 2002|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A measure to give President Bush broad authority to launch an attack on Iraq began to advance in Congress on Thursday, as the resolution was approved by a House committee and the Senate opened a potentially divisive debate on the issue.

Final votes approving the resolution are expected next week. But in the Democrat-controlled Senate, Bush's allies and his adversaries began to spar over how the United States and the international community should respond to what the White House has argued is the threat posed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his suspected weapons of mass destruction.

"Today, we begin the process of ensuring that this violent and cruel man can no longer menace us, his neighbors and his own people," Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said as the debate formally began. "Let there be no mistake, the elimination of the Iraqi threat is essential if we are to win the war on terrorism."

Some influential Senate Democrats immediately questioned whether Bush has made the case that Iraq poses an imminent threat. They prepared to propose alternative resolutions and to use the debate to focus public attention on the potential risks and costs of Bush's initiative against Iraq.

"As sure as the sun rises in the east, we are embarking on a course of action with regard to Iraq that, in its haste, is both blind and improvident," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.). "We are rushing into war without fully discussing why, without thoroughly considering the consequences, or without making any attempt to explore what steps we might take to avert conflict."

But even dissenting Democrats say they expect Bush to prevail in the House and Senate. "The train left the station," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.).

That much had become clear on Wednesday, when the White House and a bipartisan group of congressional leaders endorsed a compromise resolution authorizing Bush to launch a unilateral, pre-emptive military strike against Iraq if he concludes that diplomatic efforts to deal with Baghdad have proved fruitless.

The compromise would grant Bush the key powers he sought. In return, he agreed to certify to Congress that 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 sense of inevitability about the outcome took some drama out of the Senate debate, which opened in a halting fashion Thursday. The debate was delayed and interrupted periodically by consideration of other legislation.

The issue probably will not be joined in earnest until next week, because many lawmakers will be out of town today for the funeral of Rep. Patsy T. Mink (D-Hawaii). Neither the compromise resolution nor any alternatives are expected to come to a vote before Tuesday or Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) did not join other leaders in endorsing the compromise resolution and has said he wants to impose further restrictions on Bush's war-making powers. Nonetheless, Daschle tried to open Senate debate on a conciliatory note.

"There will be differences of opinion expressed, but there is no difference of opinion with regard to our ultimate goal," he said. "Our goal is to address the very understandable and serious concern shared not only by the administration but the American people that we have to address the threat that exists in Iraq today."

In the House, the International Relations Committee cast the first formal votes Thursday on the compromise resolution. It was approved by a resounding bipartisan vote of 31 to 11. That clears the way for the measure to go before the full House on Tuesday, with a final vote expected Wednesday or Thursday.

In the Senate, Daschle said he wanted to structure debate around three proposals:

* The Bush-backed resolution.

* An alternative by Biden and Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) that would allow force to be used only to disarm any weapons of mass destruction Iraq might have, not the broader goal of regime change that Bush has advocated. It also would put increased emphasis on securing international support, but would allow unilateral action by the United States if the U.N. fails to act.

* A resolution by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) that would authorize the use of military force against Iraq only in conjunction with the United Nations.

As Levin introduced his resolution, he argued that Congress should not decide whether to take unilateral action against Iraq without first exerting maximum pressure on the U.N. to join in such an effort. "We don't need to make the decision to go it alone at this time," he said.

The Biden-Lugar alternative is considered a more formidable challenge to Bush's policy. The choice between the two focuses on the question of what the United States is trying to accomplish: depose Hussein or eliminate Iraq's potential or capacity to produce and deploy weapons of mass destruction.

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