WASHINGTON - President Bush was in the Rose Garden, laying out the details
of a resolution against Iraq as Republicans stood loyally behind him. But there
was another face in this familiar picture yesterday: House Democratic Leader Richard
A. Gephardt, standing beside a president who is aggressively raising money to
block the Democrats from winning a majority in the House.
The scene startled and even upset some of Gephardt's fellow Democrats who
have watched their leader become a leading hawk on Iraq and cast other votes they
did not expect.
''Members are saying it was kind of a shock to see the display of unity on
the White House lawn, when so many of us are still grappling'' with the question
of whether and how to use force against Iraq, said Representative Jose Serrano,
Democrat of New York.
''I don't agree with the positions he takes on things at all. But that's something
he has to resolve for himself,'' said Representative Maurice Hinchey, Democrat
of New York. ''His attitude is, `Everybody's on their own.' There's no position
on behalf of the Democratic Party or Democratic members of the Congress - which
I think is an odd way of addressing this, really.''
Democratic consultant Peter Fenn said Gephardt is in an odd position, as he
seeks to lead a Democratic caucus with a wide array of political opinions, while
mulling a presidential run at the same time.
''I think anytime you have members of Congress who are in leadership roles
and have their eyes, or at least one eye, on the presidency, you get a little
different posture,'' Fenn said.
One Democratic lawmaker reported there was ''a lot of anger'' among fellow
Democrats at the eagerness of Gephardt, of Missouri, to agree with Bush on a use-of-force
resolution when some members of his caucus wanted to scale back the proposal.
''The word `sell-out' was used,'' the lawmaker said, requesting anonymity.
Thomas A. Daschle, the Senate majority leader and Democrat of South Dakota,
was not present at the White House announcement yesterday. While Gephardt was
standing next to Bush, Daschle was talking to members of his Senate Democratic
caucus who were figuring out how to present an alternative proposal.
Representative Jim McDermott, Democrat of Washington and a sharp critic of
the resolution, said Gephardt ''has not made [Iraq] a leadership point. He basically
abdicated the role.''
Gephardt's aides and the congressmen's defenders in the House note that the
Iraq matter is not a clearly partisan issue. Democratic Senators Joseph I. Lieberman
of Connecticut and Evan Bayh of Indiana have been strong voices in favor of threatening
Iraq with force. Several Republicans, including Richard K. Armey of Texas, the
House majority leader, have been among the skeptics on the question of a preemptive
Gephardt, said spokesman Erik Smith, did his best to bring the language of
the resolution closer to something a majority of House members would support.
''Some people weren't interested in improving it. Some people were against it,''
Representative Charles Rangel, Democrat of New York, said he opposes the resolution
but doesn't begrudge Gephardt's role in crafting it. ''The leader worked hard
with the president to find language that was even less repugnant to the Democrats
than the president's proposal,'' Rangel said.
But analysts and some Democrats in the House wonder whether Gephardt isn't
also looking ahead to his own political future. The minority leader has brushed
aside questions about whether he will run for president in 2004, but he has made
many trips to New Hampshire and other early primary states.
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