Congress's top two Democrats yesterday pointedly criticized President Bush's Iraq policy, signaling a renewed Democratic willingness to challenge the administration's march toward war just as international opposition is hardening.
In separate Capitol Hill appearances a few hours before Bush's prime-time news conference, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said it would be premature to invade Iraq without trying to win broader international support.
Daschle's and Pelosi's double-barreled criticism stood in contrast to the largely bipartisan and subdued support that Congress has given to Bush's approach to Iraq. Although a few congressional Democrats have vocally opposed war plans from the outset, party leaders generally have kept low profiles.
"The situation has put us in a more isolated position than I ever anticipated," Daschle said, adding there is "virtual unanimity" among Democrats that Bush has failed in his diplomatic dealings. He said Democrats feel the administration is "rushing to war without adequate concern for the ramifications of doing so unilaterally or with a very small coalition of nations."
Pelosi, an opponent of war in Iraq from the beginning, told reporters that Bush has not made a convincing case to the three audiences that matter most.
"It has not been made to the American people," she said. "It has not been made to the world community. It has not been made to the [United Nations] Security Council that war is the best way."
Pelosi will offer a broader critique of Bush's foreign policy in a speech in New York today, an aide said.
The top two party leaders now are escalating their criticism of Bush, because they think war is imminent and because Russia, Germany and France seem more opposed to it, according to several Democratic senators.
Many Democrats also worry that Bush is focusing on the wrong enemy. Daschle, who supported the Iraq war resolution last fall, and others see an increasingly bellicose North Korea as a graver threat.
"What really triggered this was the administration's [willingness] to have a nuclear power on the Korean Peninsula," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said.
Kennedy said in an interview that there has been "rising" frustration with Bush's strategy among party leaders over the past two weeks. But, he said, news reports that the White House was resigned to a nuclear-armed North Korea prompted Daschle and others to speak out so forcefully over the past two days.
Daschle aides said there is no coordinated campaign to undermine the president.
The president has enjoyed wide, though not exceptionally deep, support for his Iraq policy among most lawmakers and the American public. He has benefited, at least from a public relations perspective, from Congress's reluctance to renew House and Senate debates over the wisdom of going to war amid mounting international opposition.
"We think the president has the strongest hand" in international affairs "if we don't voice doubts," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).
Indeed, for political, practical and patriotic reasons, the House and Senate have largely stayed out of the divisive debate over Iraq that is consuming much of the world.
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) believes Congress has been relatively quiet for a number of reasons, including what he calls the "safe harbor" syndrome. If the nation goes to war with too few allies, "this could turn out very badly" and damage politicians who were prominent in championing it, he said.
Congress in October debated and approved the resolution giving Bush unlimited power to strike Iraq regardless of public and U.N. opinion.
Since then, congressional leaders have beaten back attempts by members to formally reconsider the use of force or to reiterate support for the president's strategy.
Kennedy and Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) have chided their colleagues for ducking an official debate over an issue as lofty as war, particularly as international opposition solidifies and Iraq makes some concessions toward disarming. Daschle previously has refused to endorse efforts by Kennedy and Byrd to force the issue back to the Senate floor.
Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), whose son is in the military and is stationed in Kuwait, said he sees "a lot of ambivalence" from lawmakers and a desire not to expose Bush to harsher criticism in a formal setting.
"The closer you get to conflict, the more reluctance there is to express views that are not supportive of the administration," said Johnson, who voted for the Iraq war resolution but wishes Bush would seek greater international backing for an attack. "I think there's some frustration that there's not much more Congress can do except to attend briefings."
Democratic leaders, worried about exposing deep fissures inside the party that could haunt them in the next election, have shot down several attempts by antiwar liberals to force a new debate on Iraq. Some Democrats fear a repeat of the Persian Gulf War, when Democrats paid a political price for opposing what turned out to be a victorious military campaign.
Another resolution, Johnson said, would just "create tension without producing any change."
Some Democrats contend the best way to shoot holes in Bush's Iraq strategy is to highlight North Korea and other threats they think should be dealt with first.
Still, Daschle's decision to attack Bush on what many view as the eve of war shows that sentiments may be changing among Democratic leaders as the threat of war looks increasingly real.
Congressional Republicans, for their part, want to play down divisions over Iraq. While all but a few GOP lawmakers are marching in lockstep with Bush, several have privately expressed concern over the president's tactics and lack of international backing.
If a debate were held, Republicans worry that GOP senators such as Hagel, who has expressed reservations about Bush's approach, would provide ammunition to antiwar forces assembling around the country and the world.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is likely to follow congressional tradition and introduce a resolution supporting the troops once an attack is launched, an aide said.
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