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Assembly's War Debate Wastes Time as the Red Ink Mounts

March 27, 2003|George Skelton

Sacramento — Sacramento

Walking into the historic, hallowed chamber of the California Assembly on Tuesday night I encountered shock and awe. Collateral damage from the war was in full view.

I was shocked that politicians actually would debate -- heatedly, emotionally -- for two hours whether to adopt a resolution supporting American troops in Iraq.

That's on top of several hours spent in party caucuses, laying strategy and arguing foreign policy.

I was awed by the blowup. There are very few such genuine blowups in legislative chambers, with heartfelt speeches and raw emotions on display, when you can hear the proverbial pin drop.

But this time, there was a nagging disconnect.

Previous long, wrenching debates have been about something the California Legislature could control: racial discrimination, abortion, gay rights, guns, farm workers....

War in Iraq?

The Assembly finally adopted, 74 to 0, an amended resolution that did proclaim "support for our troops." But Democrats refused to declare their support for the commander in chief.

A dozen hours over a week's time squabbling about that -- when there's a devastating, unresolved state budget gap of perhaps $35 billion?

"President Bush isn't all of a sudden waiting up [tonight] for this resolution," noted Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes (D-Fresno) during the debate.

One senior staffer in the back of the chamber commented: "I'm sure Gen. Franks is 50 miles outside Baghdad right now waiting to find out what the California Assembly wants him to do."

There is no logical explanation for this exercise, in which lawmakers resembled high schoolers at a mock legislature, stubbornly fighting over words in a meaningless resolution.

It was a very glaring, ugly illustration of the Legislature being polarized and politicized.

One theory is legislators are so frustrated over their inability to resolve the budget deficit -- or much of anything, given the red ink -- that all the venom boiled up into this senseless fight.

Certainly, there also are strong feelings about the war among legislators, even if its command is not part of their job description. Three weeks ago, 52 Democrats wrote President Bush opposing an immediate war.

The war's merits were debated only in passing Tuesday night, but Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) says: "It was all about the war. Really, what we were talking about was not the resolution. It was how we looked at the war."

Meanwhile, Republicans have been so beaten down by the Democratic majority that they'll seize any opportunity to claim a victory and, if possible, embarrass their enemy.

"We thought this would be a no-brainer [to support]," says Republican Assemblyman George Plescia of San Diego, who proposed the original resolution.

Well, what's a no-brainer is that if your resolution proclaims "unqualified support of our commander in chief, President George Bush" -- as Plescia's did -- Democrats are going to laugh it out of the Capitol.

Many liberals quickly concluded that supporting the commander in chief would be tantamount to endorsing his decision to invade Iraq. "Some of us do not believe this is a legal war," Goldberg says.

Democrats wouldn't even agree to language adopted by the U.S. Senate that "commends and supports the efforts and leadership [of Bush] in the conflict against Iraq."

That was supported by California's two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

But surely, there must have been some language supporting the wartime commander in chief that Assembly Democrats could have stomached. They wouldn't even discuss it.

It took an emotional speech by moderate, low-key Assemblyman John Dutra (D-Fremont), a veteran, to inspire Goldberg even to insert the troop-support language.

She and other Democrats had argued that the resolution already supported the troops enough by wishing them a quick, safe return.

"I wish this resolution was stronger," Dutra said, nearly in tears. "I wish we could all come together.... The only thing stopping us is we lack the political courage. And that's what's embarrassing."

That word -- embarrassing -- got used a lot, as in this comment by Reyes: "Today, I am embarrassed to be a member of the state Assembly."

Too much time wasted, she said. Trying to act like Congress or the United Nations.

I'll be forever shocked that it took any Americans -- let alone elected officials -- one week to decide whether to unequivocally proclaim support for American troops.

And right now we'd all better be rooting for the commander in chief.

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