Unity Likely on War Vote

Posted March 19, 2003 at 6:19pm

House and Senate leaders were putting the finishing touches Wednesday night on a pair of resolutions expressing support for American troops, the president and U.S. allies, and preparing to bring them up shortly after the start of combat in Iraq.

At both ends of the Capitol, Democratic and Republican leaders were working overtime to ensure the measures were ready for consideration as early as Thursday. Despite differences of opinion throughout Congress on whether military action is justified, leaders seemed to be in unison on the tone and language of any resolution.

Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) were expected to sponsor at least one of the resolutions in the House, both of which were expected to be free of any political overtones and intended to win broad if not unanimous support. Sources said it was assured that a resolution supporting the troops would be offered, while it was still unclear whether a second measure backing U.S. allies would materialize.

Stuart Roy, spokesman for DeLay, said Wednesday that leaders plan to have the resolutions ready for consideration as soon as the war begins, but added, “there’s no way of knowing when war would start.” DeLay was one of the first backers of President Bush in supporting military action against Iraq, while Pelosi has stood in opposition, saying all diplomatic efforts have not yet been exhausted.

Brendan Daly, spokesman for Pelosi, said the Minority Leader is awaiting the language, and insisting that it be bipartisan. He said despite the Minority Leader’s opposition to the war, the resolution is key: “It’s important to show our support for the troops and we all, regardless on where anyone stands on policy of war, support them and hope for a quick and successful mission with minimal loss of life.”

In both the House and Senate, the measure supporting the troops would be modeled along the lines of what Congress approved in 1991 during the Gulf War, calling for support of American troops and the commander in chief, Republican aides said. That measure, and other war-related resolutions, would likely preempt current Congressional debate.

“We’re working on the language,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said Wednesday, adding that he saw no reason for a hold up on the measure. He said it’s “all going smoothly” and will be a “good bipartisan resolution.”

“Once military action starts, my objective would be to get it on” the floor, Frist said.

The comity surrounding the resolution also comes just a day after Republicans took out after Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) for his criticism of Bush’s failure to pursue further diplomacy in the region. But according to one Senate GOP aide: “Nobody is inclined at this point to politicize this.”

Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said his staff was working on a resolution that salutes Bush and the troops, noting that past outbreaks of hostilities in the 1990s led to fights with Republicans who didn’t want the resolutions to mention then-President Clinton.

“I think we should speak with one, total voice,” Biden said. “It does not delineate [between the president and the troops] the way the Republicans used to.”

But some Democrats are concerned that any resolution that appears to send signals of support to Bush could face the wrath of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the octogenarian guardian of the chamber’s rules who has become the Senate’s most outspoken war critic.

“It could create a Byrd problem,” one leadership aide said of Biden’s approach.

Another Democratic leadership aide suggested that Byrd wasn’t necessarily going to block the resolution, but his assent would most likely be needed because of his standing on the issue of executive-Congressional prerogatives.

Byrd said he couldn’t comment on the resolution until he was able to “see the language” but was quick to point out that he was “four-square behind our troops.

“I have no problem with expressing support for the troops and funding whatever is needed for the safety of the troops,” Byrd said. “They are being sent abroad and they didn’t ask to go. They are being sent without the endorsement and consent of the United Nations.

“I have no problem supporting them, but beyond that I want to read what I am about to be asked to vote on,” Byrd said.

Another issue that caused some initial fissures between Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate regarded how much time would be allotted for speaking on the resolution supporting the troops.

Daschle rejected Frist’s initial offer of setting aside two hours of debate on the war resolution, a timeframe which would allow Frist to jump quickly back into the annual budget resolution debate.

Ranit Schmeltzer, Daschle’s spokeswoman, said Daschle informed Frist that a majority of his 49-Senator caucus wanted to be able to speak on the floor regarding the war, making the two-hour window unworkable.

Frist later told reporters that nothing had been determined about the length of the debate, that he was considering everything from one hour to six hours for the war resolution. He denied that there had ever been a two-hour offer to Daschle. “I wasn’t aware that an offer had been made,” he said.

Even as the country inched closer to war, Members across the Hill were vowing to keep to their normal routines as long as possible to send a message to Americans that there was no need to cower to a fear of terrorism.

But Members also pledged to be quick to return to Congress and ready to respond if and when they are needed. The House already is planning on being in session an extra day this week.

“We want to send a message to other people to go about their business,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.). “I think we need to be a model for that.”

“It’s important Members convey a sense of confidence and calm that we hope every American will exhibit,” said Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas), ranking Member on the select Committee on Homeland Security.

John Feehery, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said his boss will seek to lead that effort, returning to his district this weekend and pushing forward with Congressional business on his return. He said that even with war appearing inevitable, Members will not stay in session over the weekend or radically rework their agendas.

“We should be here working normal hours,” he said. “The point is we’re going to stay working and passing the president’s domestic agenda.”

At the same time, Members said they are prepared to stay close to the Hill if and when war breaks out in the Middle East. That becomes a bigger issue if military action brings with it some type of retaliatory terrorist attacks.

Several Members also said staying close to the region during war makes sense, but stressed that they should be charged with specific tasks if they are asked to keep vigil in Washington.

“If there is a defined role for Members — such as meaningful briefings and updates — Members will want to be in town and on the job,” said Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.), acknowledging he was unlikely to have much trouble returning to the Hill given the proximity of his district.

Paul Kane and Mark Preston contributed to this report.