WASHINGTON—Despite misgivings about "going it alone," Congress moved resolutely Thursday toward granting President Bush the authority he sought to wage war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
The House of Representatives voted 296-133 in support of the president, and the Senate was certain to do the same by a similar margin, probably late Thursday night or early Friday morning.
On a somber day filled with many forceful and a few tearful words, lawmakers from both parties authorized Bush to send American troops into battle to enforce United Nations resolutions that prohibit Iraq from amassing weapons of mass destruction.
It is the same power that Congress gave former President George Bush, the current president's father, 11 years ago, shortly before he launched and won the Persian Gulf War. Many members said they viewed today's problem as a continuation of the past war.
"Iraq is a problem that must be dealt with diplomatically if we can, militarily if we must," said House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, who opposed the Gulf War. "In 1991, no one knew the extent to which Saddam Hussein would sacrifice the needs of his people in order to sustain his hold on power," said Gephardt, D-Mo., one author of the new war resolution. Now, he said, "Saddam Hussein's track record is too compelling to ignore."
But even as they cast their votes, House Republicans and Democrats alike admonished Bush to seek support from the U.N. Security Council and to work, as his father did, to build an international coalition before invading Iraq. War, they said, should be a last resort.
"There are members here who caution the president and are expressing some concern about going it alone, acting unilaterally and not having the sanction of the Security Council," said Rep. John Spratt, D.-S.C., who voted for the war resolution after his own, more restrictive proposal was defeated.
In two key test votes Thursday, the Senate set the stage for a strong vote of support for Bush's resolution. First, senators voted 75-25 to limit debate, and thus block opponents from stalling. Senators then easily cast aside the only alternative, a proposal from Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., that would have required the United Nations to authorize force against Iraq before the United States could go to war. If the world body did not act, under Levin's proposal Bush would have had to return to Congress for a new resolution authorizing war. Levin lost, 75-24.
The lopsided votes were a resounding victory for Bush, whose advisers initially had argued that he didn't even need congressional authorization to use military force against Iraq. They also offered a historic contrast with Bush's father, who won support for his war on Iraq by much narrower margins, 52-47 in the Senate, 250-183 in the House.
Though Bush won the authority he wanted, the resolution's final wording did contain caveats that helped sway early skeptics. The measure acknowledged the role of the United Nations and required the president to notify Congress when he determines that diplomacy with Iraq has failed.
However, it authorizes him to use force "as he determines to be necessary and appropriate," without requiring U.N. or further congressional approval.
"Saddam Hussein is committed to one day possessing nuclear weapons," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. "If that should happen, instead of simply bullying the gulf region, he could dominate it. ...
"The threat posed by Saddam may not be imminent. But it is real. It is growing. And it cannot be ignored."
Critics argued that the resolution the president sought would grant him excessively broad authority. Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat who has served in the Senate since 1958, compared Bush's request to the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which President Johnson used to expand U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.
"It was this resolution that led to the longest war in American history," Byrd said. "It was this resolution that led to the deaths of 58,000 Americans. ... After all that carnage we learned that the claims the administration then in power had made on the need for the Tonkin Gulf resolution were simply not true. And history is repeating itself."
After the House vote, Bush issued a victory statement and proclaimed: "The days of Iraq acting as an outlaw state are coming to an end."
The House, Bush said, "has spoken clearly to the world and to the United Nations Security Council: The gathering threat of Iraq must be confronted fully and finally.
"Today's vote also sends a clear message to the Iraqi regime: It must disarm and comply with all existing U.N. resolutions, or it will be forced to comply. There are no other options for the Iraqi regime. There can be no negotiations."
Bush's tough words aside, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the president had not settled on war, and would continue to work through the United Nations.
Under intense pressure from Congress, Bush has agreed to ask the U.N. Security Council for a strong resolution that would authorize military force if Saddam refuses to eliminate his stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, as he pledged to after the Gulf War.
The administration said a bipartisan resolution from Congress would help Bush pressure the Security Council members, particularly Russia, France and China, which hold veto power. Those three nations resist authorizing force in an initial U.N. resolution, preferring first to order new weapons inspections, and to authorize force in a second vote only if those inspections prove futile.
Saddam has routinely thwarted U.N. arms inspectors, whom he agreed to allow into the country as part of a cease-fire agreement in 1991. Since then, the administration says, he has amassed additional chemical and biological weapons and is seeking nuclear weapons.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican who is retiring at the end of the year, ended what could be his last major speech by choking back tears. Armey had wrestled with his own conscience—and publicly questioned the president—before deciding to support him.
"Mr. President, we trust to you the best we have to give," Armey said, referring to the soldiers who ultimately may go to war as a result of Congress' vote. "Use them well so they can come home and say to our grandchildren, `Sleep safely, my baby.'"
Although only 81 of the 208 House Democrats supported the resolution, members of both parties said the strong vote in support of Bush demonstrated with certainty that, as is often the case in matters of war, the nation speaks with one voice.
"You win or lose, but you close ranks afterward," Spratt said.
Still, some Democrats said their opposition reflected the public's reluctance to go to war. "I think it shows that the country is not solidified behind the president," said Rep. Barney Frank, D.-Mass., who voted against the resolution.
Two women who shouted anti-war slogans during the House debate were removed from the visitors' gallery.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Diego Ibarguen contributed to this report.)
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.