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With U.S. on brink of war, Democrats fire salvos at Bush

WASHINGTON—As the hour of war approached, the leader of Senate Democrats on Monday accused President Bush of failing "miserably at diplomacy" and launched a vigorous assault on Bush's domestic agenda.

Using remarkably combative language with the nation at the brink of war, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle told labor leaders that Democrats will reject any tax cuts during this week's budget debate and said they will continue to block conservative judicial appointments such as Miguel Estrada's.

The broad-based criticism sent an unmistakable signal that Democratic leaders in Congress sees no political harm in condemning Bush even on the eve of war. That suggests they think public opinion is not solidly behind Bush and they are prepared to cater to such reservations by opposing him across the board—something they did not do in the first 14 months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Democratic losses in last November's congressional elections led party leaders to revive their commitment to being the nation's opposition party.

"I'm saddened that the president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we are now forced to war," Daschle told leaders of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees meeting here for a legislative conference. "Saddened that we have to give up one life because this president couldn't create the kind of diplomatic effort that was so critical for our country."

Daschle spoke less than four hours before he was to meet with Bush on Iraq at the White House, and six hours before Bush addressed the nation.

The tradition of not criticizing the commander-in-chief at the outbreak of war and the related fear of giving succor to the enemy probably will dictate that such criticism will die down once the fighting starts, especially if the confrontation is short-lived.

Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University, said opponents usually attack presidents on their foreign policy only until U.S. soldiers are in harm's way. As a member of Congress, Abraham Lincoln vociferously criticized President Polk's policy toward Mexico right up until the fighting started, but nonetheless voted to supply the American army in the war, he noted.

"The bulk of (Democrats) after tonight will say it's time for Americans to come together," Greenstein said. "Then they'll hold their breath and see what happens."

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who had been a critic of Bush's Iraq policy, said it was now time support the troops.

"Those of us who have questioned the administration's approach, including this senator, will now be rallying behind the men and women of our armed forces to give them the full support that they deserve as it now seems certain we will soon be at war," Levin said on the Senate floor.

Daschle made it clear that on domestic fronts, Democrats will not hold their fire no matter what's happening in Iraq.

He boasted that Senate Democrats have blocked Estrada, Bush's nominee for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, for six weeks by holding 45 votes united in blocking all moves toward a final vote. "We're going to have 45 votes tomorrow and the next day and the next day," he said.

He accused Bush of trying to pack the federal judiciary with "conservative, right-wing judges" and vowed to command enough votes to block those nominees as well.

Daschle also accused Bush of squandering the federal budget surplus and watching as 2 million Americans lost their jobs. He said Bush's budget, which calls for more than $1.3 trillion in tax cuts over 11 years, is "the single most irresponsible budget any president, any administration has put forth in the history of the United States of America."

"President Bush came to office pledging conservative compassion, compassionate conservatism, whatever that mumbo jumbo was," Daschle said. "All I know is there is nothing compassionate about this budget."


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

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Tom Daschle