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Debate over Iraq turns out to be anticlimactic

WASHINGTON—Congress' great debate over Iraq began with two of the Senate's gray eminences invoking Caesar and brandishing the Constitution, passionately arguing questions of war.

It ended with a whimper—the outcome a foregone conclusion, the five days of debate bearing little resemblance to the toe-to-toe contest between Sens. John Warner, R-Va., and Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., that marked its beginning last Friday afternoon.

By the time the votes were being counted, the doubters, the worriers and the potential opponents had convinced themselves that President Bush needed Congress to authorize the use of force against Iraq to win the United Nations Security Council to his side.

And based on Bush's own recent assurances, they were persuaded that he would use that authority as his last resort, not his first.

"The president's shift was fundamental in garnering support," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. She initially had voiced opposition to the White House-backed resolution authorizing war, but said she would now vote for it. "As long as the hawks were saying, `We're going to go, we're going to take out this regime, we're going to attack,' the debate was much clearer cut."

To be sure, Bush was in an advantageous position all along. No Congress has ever denied a president who sought a resolution authorizing force. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, gave Congress a new imperative to err on the side of protecting American soil. No member of Congress has ever cared to defend Saddam Hussein. And next month's congressional elections caused many potentially anti-war Democrats to make political calculations about how opposition to the president on national security would play with voters.

To a great degree, Congress reflected public opinion. A Pew Research Center poll released Thursday found the public split on this issue along partisan and ideological lines. Conservative and moderate Republicans favor military action 8-1. A narrow majority of conservative and moderate Democrats also favor force. But 56 percent of people who identified themselves as liberal Democrats opposed military action, although 37 percent of them supported it.

For all that, Congress still held plenty of skeptics. The first war resolution that Bush sent Congress last month drew only a few Democratic backers; even many Republicans blanched at the broad authority the president sought. Lawmakers' mail from constituents was running decidedly against unilateral U.S. military action in Iraq. Polls showed public apprehension about going to war without the support of the United Nations.

Bush refused to alter the bottom line of his congressional request: the right to seek Iraq's disarmament, if necessary by force and without U.N. support.

But in recent weeks, his rhetoric softened. At a Denver fund-raiser Sept. 27, he declared, "I'm willing to give peace a chance to work. I want the United Nations to work." And he offered this reassurance in a speech Monday night: "Approving this resolution does not mean that military action is imminent or unavoidable."

In a final gesture, the president agreed to add language to the resolution that encourages him to obtain U.N. backing, but without binding him to the United Nations.

What remained of Bush's opposition by Thursday took credit for some of his recent moves.

"Those of us who feel that the president's resolution is too broad have had a major impact on the direction ultimately that the president will go," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. "Beyond the partisanship of the moment, the issues we have been raising moved the administration's position."

Their floor speeches left a clear congressional record that the intent of many supporters was to give Bush an amber light, not a green one, to use military force. Indeed, many of those voting for the resolution, particularly Democrats, wrapped their endorsements in so much anxiety and so many misgivings and warnings that their speeches were virtual carbons of the texts that opponents recited, except for their conclusions.

The most spirited debate Thursday virtually sidelined Republicans, pitting the president's Democratic backers against Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., two of the Bush policy's most vocal critics.

Levin pushed an alternative resolution that would have required the United Nations to authorize the use of force before the United States could wage war on Iraq. If the world body failed to act, the measure would have required Bush to return to Congress to seek another resolution. It failed 75-24.

"The ramifications of going it alone here are major," Levin said. "To act without an imminent threat, to attack another nation, raises some significant precedent problems for other threatening parts of the world."

But Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the leading Democratic sponsor of the Bush-backed resolution, argued that Congress should not place limitations on the president's authority.

Then, reflecting the conclusion that many of his colleagues shared, he continued:

"We need to speak with a clear voice," Lieberman said. "As it says in the Bible, if the sound of the trumpet be uncertain, who shall follow?"


(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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Byrd, Warner.