WASHINGTON—A growing number of senators who voted last fall to authorize force in Iraq now say that President Bush should cool his rhetoric and give weapons inspectors more time to do their work.
Senators peppered Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with their misgivings Thursday during a closed-door briefing in the Capitol, according to participants.
Doubts growing among Republicans and Democrats alike come as the Bush administration is toughening its stance against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and is dismissing reservations from allies such as France and Germany, which oppose military action.
At this point, such growing doubts on Capitol Hill do not threaten to derail Bush's Iraq policy. But they do reflect and could magnify public apprehensions, which ultimately could influence Bush's decisions.
Among those calling for restraint and continued inspections are Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Joseph Biden, D-Del., two of the Senate's most respected foreign policy experts. Both backed Bush's request in October for a resolution authorizing him to use force against Iraq.
"Why get all jumpy here and impatient," Hagel said in an interview. "Let's let the inspectors go forward and do more."
Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he feared that Bush "was moving perilously close" to a "point of no return."
"What is the immediate threat?" Biden asked in an interview. "The idea of going (to war) absent the willing coalition of the major players and the U.N. imprimatur is counterproductive and exposes us to more terror than exists now."
To be sure, the president retains the support of many lawmakers, particularly in the House of Representatives. The House has not been in session this week, and its members have not been present to experience the administration's tough talk and last weekend's anti-war protests.
Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he approved of Bush's current course.
"Without the presence of American troops there, we would not be having inspections to begin with," Lugar said in an interview. "It's a delicate balance, but surely the pressure from the president has impelled all of the activity to date."
National polls, last weekend's domestic anti-war protests and international opposition to war have prompted warnings from within the president's own party that he is not making a convincing case for military intervention.
"I don't think the public believes that the case has really been made yet," said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. "It is important that people believe that we have exhausted all other viable avenues of resolution."
Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine who also voted to authorize force last year, said war may be inevitable, "but I don't think we're at that point yet.
"My view is that we should allow the inspection process and pressure from the United Nations and other peaceful means to continue," she said.
Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, said the administration also needs to weigh the United States' global image.
"We don't want the world to see the greatest power on Earth rushing to war," Hagel said. "We don't need to do that. We want the world to see a great power that is using its power wisely, judiciously and patiently."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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Joe Biden, Chuck Hagel, Richard Lugar, Susan Collins