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A House Divided Among California's Democrats

Iraq: Issue of Bush's bid for a military strike is not splitting the state's congressional contingent neatly along the usual North-South lines.

September 27, 2002|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Rep. Lynn C. Woolsey (D-Petaluma) is a strong "no" vote on going to war with Iraq. Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills) is a solid "yes."

Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher of Alamo, like many other Democrats on Capitol Hill, wishes the whole issue could be decided after November's elections. The state's Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have raised no qualms about President Bush's Iraq policy.

California's congressional delegation is, in short, a microcosm of Congress as a whole as it grapples with Bush's request for a resolution authorizing use of force against Iraq. "The snapshot is: Republicans are supportive of the president and Democrats are split," said Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach).

Some of the divisions among the Democrats are predictable: Most Bay Area liberals are taking a dovish stand; Jewish lawmakers and defenders of Israel tend to be more hawkish.

But there are some surprises. Sen. Dianne Feinstein--who is Jewish, a strong supporter of Israel and often a more moderate voice within her party--has emerged as one of the loudest voices against rushing to war with Iraq.

Also, unlike many issues in Congress, this is not one that cleaves the state neatly along North-South lines. In the Bay Area, for example, two Democrats from neighboring districts take opposing views: Rep. Tom Lantos of San Mateo is a strong supporter of military action against Iraq, while Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland is so staunchly antiwar that she was the only House member last fall to vote against authorizing Bush to take military action after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Among the GOP congressional contingent, Cox said that when Republicans held their weekly luncheon meeting Thursday, there was unanimous support for the resolution proposed by Bush that would grant him broad authority to take action against Iraq.

Even the Republican most inclined to stray from the party, moderate Rep. Stephen Horn of Long Beach, has lined up unequivocally behind Bush's challenge to Iraq. "The dangers of continued inaction, of endless dithering, are too frightening to ignore," Horn said in a recent statement. "We must act to support the president."

Lantos and Berman--perhaps the two most hawkish California Democrats--are strong supporters of Israel and have long warned of the threat posed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Berman helped arrange Thursday's White House meeting with House Democrats and Republicans sympathetic to Bush's policy.

"Democrats have to remember here that Bush is not the nemesis; Saddam Hussein is," Berman said recently. "On national security issues, we just have to remember where the threat to our interests is coming from."

At the other end of the spectrum is the hard core of staunchly antiwar California Democrats. Woolsey, Lee, Sam Farr of Carmel, Bob Filner of San Diego and Diane Watson of Los Angeles helped found the coalition that organized this month to oppose a preemptive military strike against Iraq.

Farr, in a commentary scheduled to appear Sunday in the Monterey County Herald, says the problem with the administration's "war plan" is that Bush "forgot to tell the American people why the United States should rush to war now against Iraq."

Also opposing the use of force against Iraq is Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), who left Thursday for a trip to Iraq. He is traveling with two other antiwar Democrats, Reps. David E. Bonior of Michigan and Jim McDermott of Washington.

"The classified briefings Congress has been presented to date have fallen short of bridging the current chasm between a rush to war and evidence of an immediate threat," Thompson said.

The House's most powerful California Democrat--Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco--has been a prominent voice of opposition to Bush, counterbalancing the support he has received from House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). Pelosi, who is also the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, says she has seen no evidence of a threat so imminent that Congress is justified in voting immediately to authorize military force.

California's Democratic senators--Feinstein and Barbara Boxer--have been critical of the wording in the resolution Bush sent to Congress this month.

Boxer called Bush's proposal "a blank check" that she would vote against.

She joined Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) on Wednesday in accusing the Bush administration of politicizing the debate concerning Iraq and of focusing on the prospects of war to gain advantage for the GOP in the fall elections.

Feinstein, who often takes less liberal positions than Boxer, opposes a preemptive, unilateral strike, arguing that the U.S. first should seek more support from the international community.

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