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Senate to Vote on Iraq Resolution Before Election

Congress: Democratic leaders drop resistance to Bush's request. The action is likely to bolster the president's hand with allies overseas.

September 18, 2002|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Senate Democratic leaders on Tuesday agreed to vote before the midterm elections on a resolution supporting action against Iraq, dropping their complaints that they were being rushed to judgment before the Bush administration had fully made its case.

The action came as Iraqi arms experts and U.N. weapons inspectors agreed to meet in two weeks to prepare for the inspectors' return to Baghdad. U.S. officials have dismissed Iraq's offer to admit inspectors, and President Bush, speaking Tuesday at a school in Tennessee, warned that the world must not be fooled by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's latest offer.

"You've got to understand the nature of the regime we're dealing with," Bush said. "This is a man who has delayed, denied, deceived the world."

After weeks of raising questions and voicing caution about Bush's request that Congress move quickly to support action in Iraq, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) embraced the aim of holding a vote on Iraq policy before Congress adjourns in mid-October for the elections.

"I think there will be a vote well before the election," said Daschle, who will join other congressional leaders at the White House today to discuss the resolution's timing and wording. "The real question is what will the resolution say."

That shift by Senate Democrats blunts one of the few sources of domestic political resistance to Bush as he has moved toward a confrontation with Hussein. And it is likely to strengthen Bush's hand as he tries to rally the international community and the American public behind his initiative against Iraq.

Attention now turns to the question of what the resolution will say, a debate that will likely force the Bush administration to be more specific about its strategy. Republicans met with Vice President Dick Cheney in the Capitol on Tuesday to discuss the measure and to rally GOP support for the president.

White House and congressional authors of the resolution face questions about just how broad or detailed it should be in authorizing Bush to act against Iraq.

The president wants broad authority; some Democrats want a more limited measure supporting the initiative that Bush unveiled at the United Nations last week. In his U.N. speech, Bush urged the international community to join the United States in demanding that Iraq destroy its weapons of mass destruction, allow arms inspections and comply with other past U.N. resolutions--and to be prepared to mete out consequences if Iraq refuses to comply.

Many Democrats had wanted to postpone a vote until after the elections; Daschle has repeatedly warned that a preelection vote risked politicizing the issue. But in a shift, Daschle said he was now calling for early action because Bush had complied with most of the requests that lawmakers had made: to consult with Congress, seek support from the U.N. and to more explicitly make the case for action against Iraq.

Daschle said he was encouraged by Bush's speech to the U.N. and by signs of growing global support for Bush's efforts. He said he still did not think there was "conclusive evidence" about the threat posed by Iraq, but he no longer insisted such evidence be provided as a prelude to rallying behind Bush.

The new support for quick action by Congress came even as some lawmakers were questioning whether such a vote should be delayed after Iraq's announcement Monday that it would allow U.N. weapons inspectors unconditional access to suspected weapons sites.

"A few weeks is well worth waiting if it allows us to avoid a war," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.).

But most lawmakers said that they had little faith in Hussein's willingness to allow unfettered inspections and that Congress should not be diverted from acting on its own. Indeed, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said a vote of support by Congress could help the U.S. win tougher action by the U.N.

Jockeying over the timing of any vote on Iraq has been laden with political overtones because of the elections, in which both parties are laboring fiercely for control of the House and Senate. Many Democrats have been concerned that a protracted debate over Iraq would cast a long shadow over the agenda of issues they believe work to their advantage--the economy and other domestic issues.

But some have argued that the sooner the issue is disposed of, the more time Democrats will have to spotlight other issues in the campaign.

While the White House is consulting congressional leaders on what the resolution will say, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said the key decisions remain Bush's to make.

Stuart Roy, a spokesman for House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), said the administration was seeking a resolution with "as few strings as possible, and that's what we plan to pursue: approval for the use of force regardless of what the U.N. may or may not do."

However, many Democrats are likely to resist giving Bush unchecked authority.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) said: "I don't want an open-ended Gulf of Tonkin resolution," a reference to the controversial measure that allowed expanded U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Dodd said he would prefer to see a resolution focused on eliminating weapons of mass destruction. Although he would not necessarily oppose efforts to promote regime change, "My goal here is to deal with the weapons of mass destruction. If regime change is an added benefit to all of this, then fine. But if you get regime change and you have weapons of mass destruction in place, then what have you gained?"

Some Republicans who have been slow to accept Bush's case against Iraq also showed new willingness to move more aggressively. "We can't condition our action on what may or may not transpire in the U.N.," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine).

*

Times staff writers Richard Simon, James Gerstenzang and Maggie Farley contributed to this report.

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