WASHINGTON — It's been nearly 12 years since both houses of Congress held a simultaneous, all-consuming, full-throated debate on war and peace.
Iraq, Part II, seized the stage on both sides of the Capitol on Tuesday as the House added its voice to the Senate's in a marathon talkfest on the possibility of another Persian Gulf War.
Shoved aside were bankruptcy reform, election reform, pension reform, energy policy, budget battles, tax cuts, prescription drug benefits and anything else that lawmakers might have wanted to talk about in the days before a pivotal midterm election.
Well over half of the 432 House members may speak by the time the Iraq debate ends, along with most of the 100 senators.
For the Senate, which has been discussing Iraq since Thursday, extended debate is routine. But in the House, it's is a rarity. Leaders and backbenchers alike are being given free rein to speak out--as long as they can keep their comments to six minutes or less.
So, even though it is clear that both chambers will back a resolution giving President Bush broad authority to use military force, if necessary, against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, lawmakers are lining up to speak their piece.
They seem aware that these speeches are not the usual throwaways that fill up Washington air time. Some were reminded of the outpouring of remarks last year, in the days after the terrorist attacks.
Those with long tenure compared the debate with the deliberations on the original Gulf War resolution, which lasted three days. A congressional aide recalled that the 1991 debate was extended nine times to allow everyone a chance to speak out. Others, like Rep. John M. McHugh (R-N.Y.), compared the current debate with the day in 1998 that the House impeached President Clinton.
For historic importance, impeachment and Iraq "far exceed every other issue in my 10 years here," McHugh said as he was walking to his office to work on his speech in favor of the Bush-backed resolution.
Minutes after excoriating that same resolution on the House floor, in a seven-minute speech that was lengthy by the chamber's standards, Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.) said in an interview that the Iraq debate was even more important than impeachment.
"I'm concerned that history will accuse us of lowering the standard for a 'just war,' " Delahunt said. To make his point, he reached back to a speech that Daniel Webster gave in 1837 laying out limited scenarios in which preemptive attacks would be justified.
Delahunt, knowing that his side would lose, said he was speaking out "for the record, for history and for the American people."
In theory, the House debate is scheduled to last 20 hours--17 hours for consideration of the resolution favored by Bush and House leaders, one hour each for two alternatives pushed by Democratic dissidents and an hour to wrap up. But the time allotted could be--and lawmakers say probably will be--lengthened by agreement of the GOP and Democratic leadership. House leaders were planning to stay in session late into the night to accommodate speakers.
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), a leader of the opposition forces, said 76 Democrats have sought time to speak against the Bush-backed resolution. An equal number may speak for it.
Then there are about 120 Republicans who are nearly unanimous in support of the president and want the opportunity to say so.
The scene in the House chamber Tuesday afternoon showed anew how Washington's great debates these days are aimed more at a television audience than at lawmakers themselves. The galleries were mostly empty, save for a sprinkling of tourists.
In one typical hour, 11 members squeezed in speeches. Rep. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), who recently returned from Baghdad, gave one of the final stemwinders of his 26-year House career, leaning back on his heels and then windmilling his arms forward to drive home his argument against the administration's position. "If we strike first, what kind of message does that send to the tinderboxes of Pakistan and India, China and Taiwan, North and South Korea?" asked Bonior, who is leaving Congress at the end of the session.
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), up next, gave a ringing defense of Bush. "Appeasement does not work," he said, speaking without notes and waving a finger of warning. "Nobody wants war. But we are at war, right now," he added, taking note of the post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism. "We have a chance right now to avoid more carnage in America."
Then followed Reps. Brad Sherman of Sherman Oaks, a Democrat backing Bush; Barbara Lee of Oakland, a Democrat passionately opposed; and Ron Paul of Texas, one of the few Republicans opposed.
Paul, speaking from a few handwritten notes, mocked the idea that Hussein represents a serious threat. Observing the futility of Iraq's attacks on allied warplanes patrolling "no-fly" zones, Paul said: "The fact that he has missed every single airplane for 12 years--and thousands of sorties have been flown--indicates the strength of our enemy." Paul declared that the U.S. was in jeopardy of violating what the Christian doctrine of a "just war" would be--in response to aggression and after the exhaustion of diplomatic negotiations.
But only a few Republicans were expected to echo his view in the days ahead.