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Wary Congress Moves Toward a Vote on Iraq

Debate: House, Senate may reach a decision today. Developments at Capitol show growing momentum behind Bush's resolution.


WASHINGTON — Grim talk of war and peace filled the Capitol on Wednesday as Congress moved closer to granting President Bush broad authority to launch--if diplomacy fails--the second U.S.-led war against Iraq in a dozen years.

The House debate is expected to end today with a final vote on the resolution, which would have far-reaching consequences for American foreign policy. The Senate also may take its final vote today.

Hawks, who have held the upper hand from the start, argued that Congress must give Bush the strongest possible show of support to help the administration confront the threat posed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his suspected weapons of mass destruction.

Doves, outnumbered but speaking out in force, complained that the resolution Bush wants would give him unchecked power to initiate preemptive war--one that they warned would lack international support, violate American tradition and cost unknown numbers of lives.

Many lawmakers in between wrestled with a vote they called one of the most important of their careers.

"It's been a terrible, terrible time," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), who intends to support the president's resolution but prefers an alternative that would link the use of military force to action by the United Nations.

"In the morning you wake up and say, 'Where am I going today? How am I going to vote?' And midafternoon, you're somewhere else. This is probably going to be the hardest vote that any of us will ever make."

The televised debates, observed firsthand by some tourists in the galleries and a smattering of lawmakers seated in the House and Senate chambers, yielded some dramatic moments amid the long hours of scripted speeches.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, prowled the Senate floor, beseeching his colleagues to be wary of endorsing a new doctrine on the use of force.

If Congress chooses to authorize military action, Biden said, "please do not rest it on this cockamamie notion of preemption. You will rue the day if that is a precedent we establish."

Biden, who has raised questions about the administration's approach, did not indicate how he would vote. However, he is considered likely to back the White House resolution.

Indeed, developments on both sides of the Capitol showed unstoppable, growing momentum behind the resolution Bush proposed last week with bipartisan congressional support.

The measure would authorize the president to use U.S. military force against Iraq if he concludes that diplomatic efforts to disarm Hussein have failed. It would urge cooperation with the United Nations and require subsequent reports to Congress but would nonetheless give the president wide latitude to act.

With Republicans forming a solid wall behind the president, key Democrats continued to fall in line, including Harry Reid of Nevada, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate; Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, his party's ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee; and Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, a potential 2004 presidential contender.

"By standing with the president, Congress will demonstrate that our nation is united in its determination to take away Saddam Hussein's deadly arsenal, by peaceful means if we can, by force if we must," Kerry said.

Sen. Charles Hagel of Nebraska, until now a leading Republican skeptic of the drive toward military confrontation, also embraced the Bush resolution.

So did Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the only current Senate Republican who opposed the measure authorizing the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

The White House kept up pressure in an effort to win the largest possible majorities for its resolution. Administration officials have stressed that it would help their effort in building an international coalition to confront Hussein and force Iraq's disarmament.

At the United Nations in New York, diplomats continued their search for agreement on wording for a new Security Council resolution on Iraq. The United States and Britain were moving toward accepting a single compromise measure that would call for "consequences" if Baghdad defies weapons inspections, but it would not directly authorize the use of military force, according to U.S. officials and U.N. diplomats.

However, differences remained, with France and Russia focused mainly on getting inspectors back into Iraq, while the United States and Britain pressed for stringent conditions to ensure compliance by Hussein's regime.

Bush spoke by telephone with French President Jacques Chirac on Wednesday. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is scheduled to fly to Russia to meet today with President Vladimir V. Putin.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, addressing a U.S. intelligence report that surfaced Tuesday and raised questions about whether Hussein would launch a catastrophic first strike against the United States, said the information indicates that the Iraqi arsenal should be cause for concern.

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