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Bush Puts Democrats on the Spot With Resolution on Iraq War

Congress: Most likely will support a war, but the open-ended request concerns lawmakers.

September 20, 2002|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Bush's formal request to Congress for broad, open-ended authority to wage war against Iraq sent a clear message to Democrats: The time for fence-sitting is over.

For weeks, many Democrats have dodged the question of whether military action against Baghdad is needed, deferring judgment because Bush had not yet asked for such authority. Now he's asked, sending Democrats scrambling to balance their reluctance to oppose him against their misgivings about giving him a blank check.

Democratic strategists say they expect a majority of party members will rally behind the resolution in the end. But on Thursday, many Democrats voiced grave misgivings about how much power Bush was seeking.

After a late-afternoon meeting to discuss the proposal, many Senate Democrats said Bush's proposal was too broad and that they would not support it in its current form.

"This resolution is extremely open-ended," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). "I don't think people would want to sign a blank check."

Others, such as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), were wary of authorizing the use of force without international support.

A few--such as Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia--were ready to support the draft resolution without major modifications.

Still others--including a small but feisty band of House Democratic liberals--flat out oppose a war against Iraq.

"The issue here is whether or not we're going to authorize a preemptive strike," said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), one of those foes. "This is the biggest vote any of us have ever taken."

Bush is seeking broad bipartisan support--rather than a narrow party-line victory--to convey a message of national unity behind his foreign policy. That, lawmakers believe, will strengthen the president's hand in the United Nations and the international community as he seeks to build a multilateral coalition against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The fence-sitting Democrats who had hoped Bush's proposal would make concessions that would make it easier to draw bipartisan support were disappointed. In its draft form, the resolution is a bold proposal seeking authorization for Bush to "use all means he determines to be appropriate, including force," to enforce U.N. resolutions Iraq has flouted, to defend U.S. security interests and to keep peace in the region. And that raised some qualms.

"I don't believe this resolution is going to fly through the Senate," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who indicated she would rather the United States not act without multilateral international support. "Let's be patient."

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said of the resolution: "It's a blank check. I could never support that."

Bush's proposal was labeled a "discussion draft," and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said he remained hopeful that the administration would consider modifications to make it more acceptable to Democrats.

"We have a long way to go in working through the draft," Daschle said.

For most Republicans, nothing more than fine-tuning is needed.

"Sounds pretty good to me," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

But it's a trickier matter for Democrats, many of whom have been raising pointed questions about the prospects for military action--queries that they complain have not been answered. For such Democrats, the decision on the war resolution is a politically delicate matter. They are caught between their post-Sept. 11 desire to stick with Bush on foreign policy issues and the concerns many of their constituents and liberal activists have raised about waging war against Iraq.

A top Democratic strategist estimated that in the House, there are a couple of dozen hard-core Democratic opponents of going to war, a somewhat larger group ready to support Bush, and an even bigger faction on the fence.

"There's a large group in the middle that needs to be convinced," this Democratic aide said. "In the end, you'll get an overwhelming number for it, but they need to hear more."

The Democrats who already have rallied to Bush tended to be conservative Democrats like Miller, strong supporters of Israel like Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills), and pro-Pentagon lawmakers like Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.), who is a senior Democrat on the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee.

"I think we have no choice but to have the strongest support possible for the president's efforts here," Dicks told reporters after meeting with Bush on Thursday.

The proposal also was welcomed by House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), a prospective presidential candidate.

"I share the administration's goals in dealing with Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction," he said. "Today's release of a draft resolution on Iraq is an important first step."

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