WASHINGTON — Back in the late 1960's, Pete Stark was known as the hippie banker for installing a huge peace sign on his bank in the East Bay and counseling draftees on whether to flee to Canada.
Now, Mr. Stark, a pugnacious liberal House member from Northern California, is back in the antiwar movement. But he and some of his fellow Democrats are trying a new approach — advocating a return of the draft.
"My constituents at home think I have lost my mind," Mr. Stark said. "They say, `Why do you want to give the military more soldiers?' I am supporting the draft as a way to oppose the war."
Mr. Stark, a veteran who said the chief danger he faced in the military was getting his tie caught in a typewriter, is co-sponsoring a proposal by Representatives Charles B. Rangel of New York and John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, both Democrats.
Those two lawmakers, veterans and senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus, say the risks of combat losses should be spread more equitably among Americans. They have a Senate ally, Ernest F. Hollings, Democrat of South Carolina, who says he wants to give advocates of American military action in Iraq and elsewhere a little something to chew over.
"One way to avoid a lot more wars to come is institute the draft," Mr. Hollings said. "You will find that this country will sober up, and its leadership, too."
While Democrats are climbing aboard the induction bandwagon, Republicans are dropping off. Representative Nick Smith of Michigan, who in the past had his own draft proposal, has no interest in helping Democrats with theirs, an aide said. Republicans generally view the Rangel plan as a cynical effort to rouse antiwar sentiment.
"There is no serious discussion of it," Representative John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican who is chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, said about bringing back the draft.
Mr. Rangel, who was wounded in Korea and decorated for his efforts to evacuate the injured during a battle, makes no apologies for trying to score a political point. "I hope I am saying that war is hell and if indeed our country's security is in jeopardy, then we must as a country be prepared to make sacrifice," Mr. Rangel said.
While few in Congress give the legislation any chance, it is reminding some of the days when the lottery they followed most closely was not Powerball but the one conducted by the Selective Service. Mr. Rangel is scheduled to address students at Harvard on Monday, a meeting that could illustrate whether the draft still has the capacity to stir crowds on college campuses.
It is already clear that the subject continues to elicit raw emotions. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was forced to apologize last month for saying Vietnam draftees had added "no value" to the military, a comment that infuriated veterans groups.
Though Mr. Rumsfeld might have had to back down from his choice of words, the Pentagon is adamantly opposed to a return to the draft, saying its all-volunteer military is a superior fighting force.
"The all-volunteer force has served the nation for more than a quarter-century, providing a military that is experienced, smart, disciplined, and representative of America," a recently circulated Pentagon position paper said.
The draft has had a long and troubled place in United States military history, from colonial conscripts through the riots of the Civil War to the draft-card burning of Vietnam. That was the last war in which some young American men were forced to serve. Faced with protests, President Richard M. Nixon abolished the draft in 1973.
Those advocating a return of the draft do not quarrel with the capabilities of the modern American military. They argue that it is more of a fairness issue, that the weight of combat should not fall just on those who signed up, often to get ahead economically or educationally.
"In the event that we do find ourselves in a war," Mr. Rangel said, "those that have to go to fight should not be selected from those who volunteered because of economic circumstances."
Mr. Hollings said bringing back the draft might also ease the burden on National Guard and reserve personnel whose lives are disrupted by frequent deployments.
Were the draft in place today, Mr. Rangel said, President Bush would be required to make a more forceful and detailed case about why intervention in Iraq is necessary. The draft, he said, "means that when you are selling war, you have to be good about it."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company