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Political Peril Aplenty

From the September 8, 2002 Los Angeles Times: If President Bush consults congress about Iraq, some congressmen might not be too happy.

12:00 AM, Sep 9, 2002 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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NOT TWO WEEKS AGO, the administration publicly concluded it didn't need to ask Congress' permission to attack Iraq. Now, President Bush is poised to pop the question.
Capitol Hill should be pleased. For weeks, lawmakers insisted, loudly, that they expect to be part of any decision about Saddam Hussein's future. Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia decried "an information gap" with the White House and said that "Congress has to be a partner" to the president. Rep. Jim Nussle of Iowa said that "by skirting Congress, the president risks another Vietnam." And those are just the Republicans.

Democrats have been less circumspect. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's spokeswoman said, "The issue is whether the president should seek to obtain the full support of the American people and their elected representatives before sending U.S. troops into combat in Iraq." Added Washington Rep. Rick Larsen: "Based on what the administration has shared with Congress, I'd say the administration is far short of being able to count on Congress' support for any action."

But Capitol Hill should be careful about what it wishes for. "There is," said former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, "political risk all around."

If Bush goes to Congress in the next few weeks, he's almost sure to come out a winner. One high-level congressional aide explained: "I think it would be useful for the president to say, 'Look, here's the deal: I need this authority, here's the resolution I want you to vote on.' It can't have the breadth of Gulf of Tonkin, but it'll have to be broad enough to give him the leeway he needs."

Most observers concede that this type of resolution would pass. Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman and now director of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said: "The Congress will give him the authority. There will be some debate, I imagine, but he'll win the vote. I can't remember when a president has not prevailed, at least in the short term, in a national security debate with Congress."

For members of Congress, however, voting on an Iraq resolution poses a number of political problems. The overwhelming majority of Republicans in Congress would grant Bush any authorization he asks for, yet a vote might give the few remaining members of the party's isolationist wing an opportunity to embarrass the GOP leadership.
As they showed with the Balkans during the Clinton administration, some Republicans, notably Iowa Rep. James A. Leach and Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, would prefer to keep American troops home for anything but self-defense. "I am very apprehensive about U.S. military intervention against Iraq absent a direct attack of Iraq on another country or against us," Leach said.

Other Republicans, such as Kansas Reps. Jim Ryun and Jerry Moran and Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, want to explore alternatives--economic sanctions and arms inspections--first. If force proves necessary, they want to exercise it within the framework of an international coalition.

But the bigger political problems fall to Democrats. With midterm elections in November, a vote on going to war with Iraq now could come back to haunt members in close races. "The dilemma for every Democrat is, 'Do you side with your lefty base, or side with the commander in chief in a time of war?' " said the Hudson Institute's Marshall Wittmann.

There are divisive pressures building in the party, and the dynamic could produce a split. For example, Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who wants to take back the House in November, has staked out a pro-war position, while up-and-comer Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, who wants to be the next House leader, hints that she'll oppose an assault on Iraq.

Worse, the Democrats don't want to be perceived as the party of appeasement. In a closed-door meeting before Congress recessed in August, Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich tried to get House Democrats to agree to take a unified stand against the war. He failed, but many of his fellow Democrats are with him. One Democratic congressional aide predicts, "You'll have a fairly vocal and reactionary peace wing in the House."

Perhaps in the Senate too. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported that Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, made the Chamberlain-esque argument that attacking Iraq might actually incite Hussein to use his weapons of mass destruction.
In 1991, 45 of the 55 Democratic senators and 179 of the 265 Democratic representatives voted against the Gulf War. Another showing like that, so close to an election, could be bad news for the party. "It exposes [Democrats'] Achilles' heel--national security," said Wittmann.