WASHINGTON - Supporters of requiring President Bush to secure congressional approval for any preemptive strike on Iran are regrouping for a new push, presaging a difficult vote for Democratic leaders and presidential hopefuls alike.Democrats hailed the Iraq withdrawal language attached to the emergency supplemental as a signal of a newly assertive Congress, even though the House removed a mandate for authorization of attacks on Iran from early drafts of the bill. The reversal quieted some Democrats' concerns that reining in Bush on Iran could endanger Israel's security in the Middle East.
Iran is likely to reappear on the agenda this spring, however, as Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) considers adding his language on the issue to the defense authorization bill and House Democrats hold their leadership to a promise for a roll-call vote.
"There is no hand-tying here. We're not taking options off the table," Webb spokeswoman Jessica Smith said. "He offered this piece of legislation to restore the proper balance between the executive and legislative branch. This is a bill to empower Congress."
For many Democratic base voters, Webb's Iran language is also a litmus test for presidential candidates. White House assertions that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is tied to Iraqi insurgent groups makes opposition to a possible war with Iran as crucial as opposition to the Iraq war for Democrats running in 2008.
Tom Andrews, the former Democratic lawmaker now leading the anti-war group Win Without War, said the party's White House hopefuls should see Webb's plan as a no-brainer.
"The idea that you could not support prohibiting a military strike, given the conditions that are on [Webb's measure] ... certainly raises serious questions in our community," Andrews said.
Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) are the only 2008 Democrats on record as backing Webb's effort. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) took the Bush administration to task on Iran in a Feb. 14 floor speech, supporting the spirit of Webb's effort, if not his specific language.
"It would be a mistake of historical proportion if the administration thought that the 2002 resolution authorizing force against Iraq was a blank check for the use of force against Iran without further congressional authorization," Clinton said.
When asked whether Clinton would vote for Webb's language, a spokesman for the New Yorker took a wait-and-see approach, saying it depends on the format in which it reaches the floor.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has also kept mum on Webb's language, which includes multiple exceptions in case of an attack on Iran or Iranian hostility in Iraq. But Obama took an interest in Webb's push during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last month with Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns.
Obama asked whether Bush believes he has presumptive authority to attack Iran, to which Burns responded: "It's the position of our government that the president obviously has the constitutional duty to protect the American people ... and as commander in chief has to be able to exercise that authority as he sees fit."
"I think you meant, 'it's the position of our administration' as opposed to 'our government,'" Obama replied.
Iran's recent saber-rattling detention of a British naval crew, which ended in the soldiers' safe release, appears to have sparked less escalation than expected between Bush and Ahmadinejad. But pro-Israel stalwarts such as Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) see any curb on U.S. action against Iran as a potential handcuff in Iraq.
"What if the president decides, at the request of General Petraeus, that we have to take action to take out [an Iranian] base?" Lieberman said yesterday. "I wouldn't want to have to go through a month-long debate in Congress before you could do that."
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Washington's most influential pro-Israel lobbying group, held its capital policy conference just after the House removed Iran authorization language from its version of the supplemental. AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr told members there that any legislative attempt to limit U.S. options in Iran would be harmful and signal weakness.
In addition to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) support, Webb has the public backing of Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). In the House, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) said through a spokesman that he would hold Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to her vow for a recorded vote on Iran authorization language.
"I think it will pass because there isn't a thinking person in the world that believes the President when he says won't launch a military strike against Iran," McDermott said. "Even conservative Republicans are worried about the president's lack of credibility."
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) echoed McDermott's intentions.
"The Bush administration has already misled our nation into one unnecessary preemptive war under false pretenses, and Congress needs to make it perfectly clear that he does not have the authority to take us down the same road with Iran," Lee said in an e-mail.
The multilateralist group Just Foreign Policy marshaled supporters of the Webb amendment during the supplemental debate last month. Antiwar groups including Peace Action and United for Peace and Justice joined in by organizing grassroots call-ins to Senate offices urging a vote on the Webb language.
"The Senate is going to feel the pressure to pass this provision soon," Robert Naiman, national coordinator of Just Foreign Policy, wrote on the group's website. Among its board members are Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, and Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future.
© 2007 Capitol Hill Publishing Corp.