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Democrats walk thin line over support for Bush, attack on agenda

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Congress, formerly known as the world's "greatest deliberative body," struggled to find its voice Thursday as Democrats wobbled between supporting President Bush's mission in Iraq and blocking the rest of his agenda.

By day's end, the Senate had passed unanimously a resolution backing U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf and applauding Bush's leadership, but a budget resolution that spells out the president's goals on everything from tax cuts to prescription drugs was teetering amid worries over war costs and long-term deficits.

The parallel yet opposite tracks illustrated the Democrats' careful strategy: They praised the troops, then cited the war and its costs to attack Bush's request for $1.35 trillion in tax cuts over the next 11 years and Republican budget proposals in general.

"There is no money in this budget for the conflict," said Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee. "There is no money in this budget for the occupation. There is no money in this budget for the reconstruction."

Senators of both parties blessed the time-of-war resolution that commended Bush's performance as commander in chief, expressed gratitude to troops overseas, saluted their families and even praised British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Even critics of Bush's Iraq policy kept their doubts in check and joined the chorus.

"We stand here together, shoulder to shoulder, whatever side of that particular resolution we voted on," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, referring to last fall's resolution authorizing war with Iraq, which he opposed.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who sided with Levin last fall, made it clear that debate is over: "We've moved on from that place. The president has made his decision."

The Democratic voices of unity on the war came two days after Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, speaking to a group of union members, said he was "saddened" that Bush had "failed so miserably at diplomacy."

After being sharply condemned as unpatriotic by Bush defenders for two days, Daschle said Thursday: "What we're simply saying today is that when it comes to our troops, our recognition of the commander in chief, that we do stand united."

In the more freewheeling House of Representatives, the voices of unity did not come together so easily. A handful of liberal Democrats tried to change the resolution so that it called for a peaceful resolution to the Iraq conflict by continued weapon inspections.

"People all over are very disturbed about this," said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. "The president cannot force us to support a war we do not agree with. He can count on my continued opposition to this incredible abuse of power."

Democrats planned to debate the wording of a proposed pro-troops resolution among themselves Thursday evening, but that meeting was canceled when a freshman Democrat from Georgia challenged its propriety.

"It's my judgment that at this time the appropriate thing to do is to come together as a country, supporting our troops, being silent and seeing how our president and our commanders handle this," said Rep. Jim Marshall after crashing a press conference by anti-war lawmakers.

In the end, the language of the resolution was left for Pelosi, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to work out.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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