WASHINGTON -- Edging America closer to possible war, Congress voted decisively to give President Bush the broad authority he wants to use military force against Iraq.
The Senate passed the measure early this morning by a vote of 77-23, after the House approved it yesterday, 296-133.
Passage followed solemn debate in both chambers -- spending three days in the House and about a week in the Senate -- about the consequences of authorizing a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. The resolution allows Bush to use force, acting alone if necessary, to protect the United States from threats posed by Iraq and to enforce United Nations mandates that Saddam Hussein has defied.
Under the measure, Bush could attack Iraq so long as he certified to Congress in advance -- or no more than 48 hours afterward -- that diplomatic efforts had failed and that the use of force would be consistent with the war on terrorism.
The president wanted overwhelming votes in Congress as a way to show the world -- and the United Nations -- that America is unified in its willingness to disarm Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction.
"The House of Representatives has spoken clearly to the world and to the United Nations Security Council," Bush said after the vote. "The gathering threat of Iraq must be confronted fully and finally."
The House vote, though, included a thinner base of Democratic support than many had expected. Nearly two-thirds of Democrats voted against the resolution, going against their leader, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. In the Senate, by contrast, a majority of Democrats supported the measure.
Bush has said repeatedly that the resolution's passage does not guarantee that he will launch an attack. He has said he will do so only as a last resort, if Hussein continues to ignore demands that he disarm. Still, lawmakers cast their votes with the understanding that the resolution could lead to an open-ended war with Iraq.
"We are confronting the grave issues of war and peace," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, who threw his support to the measure only this week.
"These questions go directly to who we are as a nation. How we answer them will have profound consequences -- for our nation, for our allies, for the war on terrorism, and -- perhaps most importantly -- for the men and women in our armed forces who could be called to risk their lives because of our decisions."
Senate debate stretched into the night, as members of both parties exercised their rights to be heard on a measure of historic magnitude. Broad approval was not in doubt, though, even as Democrats made several unsuccessful efforts to narrow the authority they were granting Bush.
But the wide margins of support in both chambers masked an uneasiness among many -- particularly Democrats. Some argued that in a pre-election atmosphere, after persistent calls from an administration intent on striking a hawkish stance on Iraq, Congress had too readily yielded its prerogatives and handed too much authority to the president.
'A grave disservice'
"The outcome is certain, the ending has been scripted: The Senate will vote, and the Iraq resolution will pass," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat who was one of the measure's staunchest opponents and who helped delay the Senate vote far into the night.
"The Senate, in following this preordained course of action, will be doing a grave disservice to the nation, and to the Constitution on which it was founded."
Many opponents blamed Bush, and the pressure his administration imposed to approve a resolution before the November elections, for what they characterized as a rush to judgment on an overly sweeping authorization. They also acknowledged that the bipartisan support of congressional leaders for the resolution had made it hard for their voices to be heard.
"The leaders -- all of them, in both parties -- could have gotten us a better deal, and they didn't," said Rep. Benjamin A. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat who voted against the resolution. "Congress made a mistake. We gave [Bush] far too much power. It becomes an historic mark against Congress in yielding too quickly to an entirely new foreign policy."
The resolution was backed in the House by 215 Republicans and 81 Democrats; opponents included 126 Democrats, one independent and six Republicans, including Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County.
Among the Maryland lawmakers, Cardin and Morella were joined in their opposition by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat.
The rest of the state's delegation -- Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County and Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore, all Republicans, and Reps. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland and Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County, both Democrats -- voted for the measure.
In the Senate, 29 Democrats joined 48 Republicans in support of the measure, while Rep. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and independent James M. Jeffords of Vermont joined 21 Democrats, including both of Maryland senators, Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, in voting 'no.'
U.S. officials are locked in difficult negotiations with the other veto-bearing members of the U.N. Security Council on a resolution that would force Hussein to disarm. The United States and Britain favor a tough measure requiring unfettered weapons inspections and authorizing the use of force if he did not comply. France has resisted that approach.
The House and Senate debates focused on the two main elements that set this occasion apart from the first time Congress voted to authorize military force against Iraq. That was in 1991, when President George H. W. Bush responded to Hussein's invasion of Kuwait by assembling a broad international coalition to repel Iraq, and then sought, and received, Congress' authorization.
In contrast, Congress voted yesterday to authorize a military strike against Iraq -- whether or not the United Nations or allies support it. The resolution would let Bush initiate a first strike even in the absence of new aggression by Hussein's regime against the United States or its allies.
As such, the debate -- and to some extent the votes cast yesterday -- were a significant chance for lawmakers to weigh in on key elements of the Bush administration's foreign policy.
Opponents criticized Bush's tendency toward unilateralism, which they say has been demonstrated by his administration's opposition to international alliances, and more recently in its assertions that it will do what it believes necessary in Iraq, with or without U.N. backing.
Strategy of preemption
The resolution also gave Congress its first chance to cast a vote under the Bush administration's new strategy of "preemption": that the United States must act preemptively to protect America from attacks by rogue nations or terrorists.
"This is a very dangerous path for the United States to go down," Sarbanes, who opposed the war resolution. "I don't think it will serve our interests. As far as the Congress is concerned, it has declared war with Iraq."
Most Republicans cast their position as a matter of trusting Bush and showing a united front to the world, saying America had little choice but to pursue the course the president laid out.
"The perils of complacency were driven home to us in September of last year," said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican.
"No longer should America allow dangers to gather and multiply. No longer should we stand idle as terrorists and terrorist states plot to kill our people. War was thrust upon us; the only choice before us is victory or defeat."
Support and opposition to the resolution did not come down purely upon partisan lines. Some of the measure's vocal proponents were Democrats who said the president's policies were justified.
"If we show the courage to lead, others will follow," said Rep. Tom Lantos of California, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee and a leading supporter of the resolution.
"We dare not repeat the history of the last century -- a history characterized too often by appeasement and inaction in the face of tyranny. It is a history that should haunt all of us."
Bush said the House vote "sends a clear message to the Iraqi regime: You must disarm and comply with all existing U.N. resolutions or [you] will be forced to comply. There are no other options for the Iraqi regime. There can be no negotiations. The days of Iraq acting as an outlaw state are coming to an end."
Copyright © 2015, CT Now