Dozens of congressional Democrats are frustrated with their leadership for rushing to embrace President Bush's Iraqi war resolution and fostering an impression the party overwhelmingly backs a unilateral strike against Saddam Hussein.
Some are now looking to former president Jimmy Carter and former vice president Al Gore to help generate significant public opposition to unilateral action in Iraq, which they concede is an uphill and likely unwinnable battle. They also are drafting alternative congressional resolutions that would require Bush to win United Nations approval before attempting to oust the Iraqi leader.
said numerous Democrats were emboldened by Gore's speech on Monday, in which he
blasted Bush's Iraq policy and declared it would "severely damage" the broader
war on terrorism and undermine U.S. credibility.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said her party leaders are making it "very hard" for rank-and-file Democrats to alert the public to widespread concerns about Bush's Iraq policy, most notably his demand for the power to strike Baghdad unilaterally.
"I think we as a nation are better served right now by some patience to see if the United Nations can in fact compel compliance," she said. "It's much better to root out chemical and biological weapons with inspectors than it is to drop bombs. One of the dismaying things is there is a prevailing view that the votes are there, so let's just do it."
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) said the outspoken support of Bush by House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) belies grave concerns about the administration's Iraq policy among most rank-and-file Democrats he has spoken to.
"It's not as though there's some great rush inside the party to support war," Kucinich said. "The problem is our leadership has been so outspoken in favor of Bush . . . it causes Democrats to be characterized as favoring the war." Last night, he distributed leaflets asking those who share his concerns to convene for a strategy session.
The issue is exposing a rift between many rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers concerned about the consequences of war with Iraq and their party leaders -- including some presidential hopefuls -- eager to back Bush and shift the debate to domestic issues, such as the economy, before the Nov. 5 elections.
Several Democrats pointedly suggested that Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Gephardt are putting politics over policy by rushing to back a unilateral strike against Iraq. Both men are considering a run for president in 2004 and hope to gain Democratic congressional seats this fall. They know their party suffers when Congress, the media and voters are debating war instead of health care reform and other domestic concerns.
"Make no mistake: When you combine in our caucus the hawks, the people in close races and all those who one day aspire to be president who are going to vote for this, they've got quite a few Democrats who will vote for this," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).
Daschle said he shares many of his colleagues' concerns, especially the detrimental effect an attack could have on the broader war on terrorism. He said he has encouraged them to vote their conscience. "I think under these circumstances that it is in spite of our grave concerns that we give the benefit of the doubt to the president," Daschle said in an interview.
Aides to Gephardt noted that the congressman laid out his desire for regime change in Iraq well before the resolution debate started.
Congressional Democrats' concerns range from modest differences with Bush's proposed resolution language to deep misgivings about the ramifications of a unilateral military strike. They have little time to rally opposition to the war resolution, which would grant the president unlimited authority to do whatever he deems necessary to eliminate Hussein's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. White House officials are negotiating with congressional leaders over the details, but several people familiar with the talks said there will be no substantive changes to the resolution sought by Bush. A vote is likely during the week of Oct. 7.
Leading lawmakers predict Bush will win an overwhelming, bipartisan majority for his resolution. But House and Senate Democrats, after attending private meetings to discuss the topic yesterday, said opposition is spreading quickly.
"The more time passes, the more apparent it becomes there is not a justification for war at this time," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.). He said a number of opponents are reluctant to go public with their concerns, fearing a backlash from leadership and voters back home.
Kucinich said numerous Democrats were emboldened by Gore's speech on Monday, in which he blasted Bush's Iraq policy and declared it would "severely damage" the broader war on terrorism and undermine U.S. credibility. They were also delighted with Carter's comments that Bush's policy of using preemptive military action is a "radical departure" from U.S. policy. Kucinich has phoned both men to request their help in building opposition to Bush's resolution.
Gore's speech may complicate Democratic congressional leaders' efforts to settle the Iraq debate quickly in hopes that the election's final weeks will be dominated by economic and domestic issues. "Most Democrats just want this to go away," one party strategist said, "and he didn't just bring it up, he created a whole new debate."
Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.
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