Democrats Unconvinced On Iraq War
Published on Wednesday, September 11, 2002 in the Washington Post
Democrats Unconvinced On Iraq War
by Jim VandeHei and Juliet Eilperin

Congressional Democrats said yesterday that classified briefings by President Bush's top advisers have failed to make a compelling case for quick military action against Iraq, and several leaders said Congress should wait until after the November elections before voting to authorize a strike against Saddam Hussein's regime.

"I know of no information that the threat is so imminent from Iraq" that Congress cannot wait until January to vote on a resolution, said Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee. "I did not hear anything today that was different about [Hussein's] capabilities," save a few "embellishments."

The White House, after originally suggesting it might act against Iraq without congressional approval, has called on Congress to pass a resolution of support before adjourning in October.

After attending a classified briefing by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and CIA Director George J. Tenet yesterday, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said: "It would be a severe mistake for us to vote on Iraq with as little information as we have. This would be a rash and hasty decision" because the administration has provided "no groundbreaking news" on Iraq's ability to strike the United States or other enemies with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. Senate Majority Whip Harry M. Reid (Nev.), the chamber's second-ranking Democrat, also advocates delaying the vote, according to Democratic aides.

Because Democrats narrowly control the Senate, they could keep an Iraq resolution from reaching a vote this fall. Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), however, left the door open to a possible vote in the next few weeks if Bush meets several criteria, including obtaining more international support for a military campaign and providing senators a more detailed explanation of how the war would be conducted and how Iraq would be rebuilt.

If a resolution does reach the Senate floor before the Nov. 5 elections, it is doubtful that Democrats could muster enough votes to defeat a popular president's request, according to lawmakers in both parties.

While most congressional Republicans seem to support Bush's anti-Iraq campaign, one prominent member{ndash}House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.){ndash}has said any resolution vote should be delayed. Such comments are complicating Bush's campaign to win public support for striking Hussein at a critical moment for the administration. In a major speech to the United Nations Thursday, Bush plans to appeal to world leaders to help depose the Iraqi president and dismantle his chemical and biological weapons programs. Bush's aides had hoped lawmakers would fall into line quickly, even as they anticipated possible resistance from some Democrats.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is virtually alone among world leaders in backing the U.S. proposal to overthrow Hussein soon, as European polls show little public support for a military campaign in Iraq.

With so many U.S. lawmakers cool to Bush's war talk, the stakes for his U.N. speech are growing higher. Democrats and Republicans alike said the president has the opportunity to change minds and win support if he lays out as clear and compelling a case for a preemptive attack against Iraq as he did for conducting a global war against terrorism last fall.

A senior White House aide yesterday said Bush will not propose a specific course of U.N. action against Iraq, but will challenge world leaders to show convincingly how Hussein's threat can be ended without ousting the Iraqi president.

Several lawmakers said it is hard to imagine that Bush will reveal details to the United Nations that were not disclosed to lawmakers in classified briefings. If "top secret" information was not enough to sway Democrats and some Republicans here, said a senior GOP leader who requested anonymity, then Bush will have trouble winning over a skeptical international audience on Thursday.

"What was described as new is not new," said Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) about information that Rice and Tenet provided to lawmakers. "It was not compelling enough" to justify war. "Did I see a clear and present danger to the United States? No."

In a letter to Bush yesterday, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Sen. Richard G. Lugar ( R-Ind.) wrote: "There is not consensus on many critical questions" about the use of force in Iraq.

A top House leader who attended the classified briefings said Bush will have a difficult time winning congressional support before the elections because his aides have not presented lawmakers with the "smoking gun" many are seeking. This leader, who requested anonymity, worries that this will undermine Bush's campaign to win international support because it adds to the appearance that the president is acting unilaterally, even in his own country.

"Daschle will want to delay this and he can make a credible case for delay," the Republican leader said.

Pressing lawmakers to act quickly, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) called Rice on Monday night and asked her to submit to Congress a specific war resolution the week of Sept. 23, so lawmakers can make changes and try to vote on it before adjournment, tentatively set for early October.

Democrats believe there is a strong precedent for delaying a final vote until after the elections, so lawmakers will not feel pressured to back the president just before voters go to the polls. In 1990, George H.W. Bush, the current president's father, agreed to postpone a vote on going to war with Iraq until after the congressional elections.

In yesterday's briefing, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), who backs a military campaign to depose Hussein, called for a special session of Congress after Nov. 5 to debate a war resolution. "I do not believe the decision should be made in the frenzy of an election year," said Lantos.

Most Republicans, and some Democrats, however, feel Congress should heed Bush's request and vote on the resolution in the next month.

"People are going to want to know, before the elections, where their representatives stand," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "This could be the vote of the decade, so why wait?"

© 2002 The Washington Post Company