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In the House, It Was a Vote Not Soon Forgotten

Scene: Although a historic occasion, there was little rhetoric. The conclusion felt foregone and the chamber's halls were eerily quiet.

October 11, 2002|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — This was a week of sleepless nights, and Rep. Jane Harman felt it as she sat outside the House chamber Thursday, a spinach burrito back at her desk, uneaten. The mail coming in from her South Bay district was emotional and mostly opposed to a war against Iraq. One letter in particular stood out: "How will you feel when your constituents start coming home in body bags?"

But the Democrat from Venice voted yes nonetheless, joining the majority of her House colleagues in what amounted to a first step toward war.

"This is a very hard vote. There is no corner on wisdom," Harman said. "Do I think what we're doing today means we're going to war? No. I think we're standing up to evil."

After weeks of debate, the House gave President Bush a wide berth in using military force should diplomacy fail to force Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to give up his suspected supply of lethal weapons.

The vote was historic, authorizing the use of first-strike capabilities, yet the rhetoric didn't soar, the conclusion felt foregone and the halls of Congress were so quiet, one might think they were in there discussing sugar subsidies.

It was hardly the soap opera that played out more than a decade ago when many of the same lawmakers voted to go after the same brutal dictator, their speeches gripping as the nation waited, protesters in the streets chanting: "No blood for oil."

But that was, of course, before Sept. 11, 2001.

"The country is more focused now," Harman said. "And the understanding of evil is clearer."

There was little doubt that the Senate would follow suit as it hunkered down late Thursday in a series of speeches unlikely to change anyone's mind. On both sides of the Capitol, lawmakers spoke to nearly empty galleries. Still, many of them said it was a vote they would not forget.

Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Alamo) called her parents at 7:30 Thursday morning; they supported her decision to cast a vote for possible war, even though they didn't necessarily agree.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) had yet to make up her mind by midday as her staff worked on multiple drafts of a speech, not sure what it would finally say.

A copy of "The Guns of August," the tome about the start of World War I cited by President Kennedy during 1962's Cuban missile crisis, sat on the night table of Rep. Adam B. Schiff. The Burbank Democrat backed the use of force, a decision sure to disappoint a chunk of his deeply divided constituency.

"I still think there is a diplomatic way out, a very reasonable probability that Iraq will accept unfettered inspections," Schiff said.

The catastrophe of last year's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made it difficult for some members to oppose Bush, or even to hold out for a two-step process forcing him to exhaust all diplomatic avenues and then return to Congress for permission to strike.

So they went on record calling Hussein every imaginable synonym for tyrant, predicting nuclear or chemical doom if he isn't stopped.

The dissenters asked "why now?"--most notably Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who spent hours arguing for restraint, waving his arms and wagging his finger from the Senate well.

Other opponents were more resigned. Smoke from Rep. Barney Frank's Macanudo cigar swirled around the House speakers' lobby as his colleagues stood inside making speeches. A Massachusetts Democrat, Frank would vote against Bush's request for congressional blessing, knowing full well his colleagues would never defy the president on this one.

"They complain, they interrupt, but they don't want to stop it because if things go wrong, they get blamed," Frank said. "It's congressional dereliction of duty."

Yet the day was not without its drama. Just as House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas was calling the debate one of the greatest he had ever heard, two protesters in the House gallery stood up and started yelling, "No war! No war!"

The Capitol Police moved in posthaste, stepping on the toe of Hughes Marinella, who said she didn't mind one bit.

"Those guards did a magnificent job," cheered Marinella, who was visiting Washington with friends from the Cherokee Village Retirement Community in Arkansas, including Natalie Robinson, who surprised everyone by yelling "Take 'em away!" as the protesters were put in handcuffs.

"If they don't like it, they can move to another country," Robinson said, as the ladies headed off to further discuss the matter over lunch.

Much of the country might have agreed, if a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press is any indication. The survey found that most Americans believe Iraq soon may have a nuclear weapon and that Hussein should be ousted.

But the citizen call for diplomacy before war seemed equally loud as several lawmakers reported receiving stacks of mail 3 feet high, with only a handful favoring military force. One Democratic congresswoman, who supported the use of force and asked to remain anonymous, got a missive from her first high school boyfriend informing her he could no longer support or admire her. "That stung," she said somberly.

In the end, there was more opposition in the House than first predicted--296 for and 133 against, upending predictions made weeks ago that only a handful would dare reject a get-tough policy on Iraq.

They vowed to keep the momentum building, asking voters to call the White House and tell the president there is a rising wave of opposition to another war in the Persian Gulf.

"Mr. President, it is not too late," Rep. Bob Filner warned. "There is a whiff of Vietnam in the air here," the San Diego Democrat said.

"There is division coming to America."

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