WASHINGTON—Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle asked for floor time this week for the Senate to debate President Bush's policy on Iraq. When the time came Friday, only two Democrats showed up.
It was, after all, an exercise in futility. No legislation about war, no resolution on Iraq was at stake.
The nation may be divided over whether to take military action against Saddam Hussein without the backing of the United Nations. In Congress, however, the time for action is long past, leaving the opposition to vent in hallway declamations and in the occasional floor speech to an empty House or Senate chamber.
"This chamber is for the most part ominously, dreadfully silent," Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W-Va., an opponent of war without U.N. support, said recently.
The debate essentially ended in October when Congress passed a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, unilaterally if necessary. All but one of the Republicans voted for the resolution; 29 of 50 Democrats voted for it as well.
The vote revealed a divided Democratic Party, and it remains so, even though some of the original supporters now criticize what they say is Bush's "rush to war."
Daschle, who voted for the resolution, has turned down requests from Byrd and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to bring up new resolutions that would place restrictions on war. Now that war is imminent, Democrats are in a quandary over how to give voice and leadership to the many voters looking to them to restrain the rush to war.
A poll this week by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut found voter anxiety about war and the economy had wounded Bush to the point that a Democrat would edge him out if the presidential election were held now. The university surveyed 1,232 American voters from Feb. 26 to March 3, and the poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percent.
The poll found that 57 percent support using force to oust Saddam from power, but 56 percent say the United States should wait for the United Nations before taking military action against Iraq.
Democrats have wasted no time blaming Bush for the economy and ridiculing his proposed tax cuts. On Iraq, however, the voices of loyal opposition have been left to Kennedy, Byrd, and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, who have called on Bush to let weapons inspectors do their work. Several Democratic House members have joined them in that plea.
"The president needs to be open and honest about the sacrifices required of this country if we go to a war with Iraq. And secondly, the only way to do this and do it right is through the auspices of the U.N. and an international coalition," Daschle said Thursday.
For the most part, the party has refused to speak strongly against a war. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., both presidential candidates, support Bush. So do a number of other less high-profile Democrats.
The lack of harmony contrasts with the unified Democratic stance against Bush's policy on communist North Korea's attempts to develop nuclear weapons. Democrats have called on Bush to engage in bilateral talks with the North Koreans. Bush has insisted that talks can take place only in conjunction with China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
When it comes to Iraq, "Democrats are very sensitive about the possibility that whatever they say will make them look disloyal and will be used against them," said Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst who publishes a newsletter in Washington. "After the fact there will be plenty of opportunity for finger-pointing and second-guessing, if it's called for."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist on Friday noted that public opinion did not support war at the outset of World War II.
Many Democrats also remember their opposition to the 1991 resolution on using force against Iraq under the previous President Bush. Many of their fears turned out to be groundless.
"The Republicans were able to demonize the Democrats as a party that was weak on foreign policy and national security," Rothenberg said.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.