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White House asks Congress to back force
President Bush formally asked Congress yesterday for broad authorization to "use all means," including force, to disarm and topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, regardless of whether the United Nations supports such action.
"If you want to keep the peace, you've got to have the authorization to use force," Bush said yesterday after he sent Congress a proposed resolution that administration officials said aims to give him the "maximum flexibility" he would need to take action in Iraq.
The resolution, if approved, would give him sweeping authority to try to oust Hussein and eliminate any Iraqi biological, chemical or nuclear weapons programs.
The submission sets the stage for a congressional vote as early as next week on the measure, which would hand Bush sweeping power to "defend the national security interests of the United States against the threat posed by Iraq, and restore international peace and security in the region."
Nearly all congressional lawmakers say they regard Hussein as a threat and believe he should be forced to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction or face dire consequences. But while almost all Republicans support the administration's request, some Democrats expressed concern that the proposed resolution is far too open-ended.
"It's irresponsibly broad. It's a nonstarter. It's astonishing," said Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin as he emerged from an evening huddle of Democrats. Asked whether many Senate Democrats shared that view, Feingold said: "I was amazed at how many, and even more forcefully than I was."
The bipartisan consensus that has solidified in Congress in favor of quickly authorizing the use of force against Hussein has made some wary Democrats shift their approach. Though they recognize that Congress is headed toward approving some sort of authorization, they are determined to impose conditions. Their task is made more difficult by the momentum in favor of giving Bush the authority he wants.
With midterm elections just six weeks away, the White House is asking Congress to vote on Iraq before mid-October. And because leading Democrats want to turn the national focus back to their party's signature economic issues, they have concluded that they have no choice but to back a resolution and pass it quickly.
"The sooner we get to this, the better off we are," said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority whip. "We have so many other things to do."
Some Senate Democrats said they were particularly alarmed by wording in the resolution that declares that the authorization can be used to "restore international peace and security in the region."
Democrats expressed concern that this wording could give Bush license to use force against other countries in the Middle East, such as Iran, Syria or Libya, without coming back to Congress for authorization.
"Many people feel that it's such a blank check that it would allow any president to do almost anything anywhere," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat.
Some House Democrats who could be asked to vote as early as next week on an Iraq resolution said they are concerned that the White House proposal would not require the president to turn to diplomatic negotiations before launching an invasion of Iraq.
"Generally, all of us are supportive of the president and the troops once we get there, but a lot of us would like to make sure, before we get into the shooting side of things, that we have exhausted all our diplomatic alternatives," said Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, a Florida Democrat.
The House International Relations Committee is expected to approve a resolution next week that would closely parallel the White House proposal. It would give the president broad authority to act pre-emptively against Iraq, regardless of whether the international community supports such action.
Hastings, a member of that committee, is working with other Democrats, including Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, on an alternative that would set "preconditions" -- including diplomatic talks and efforts to renew U.N. weapons inspections -- before force could be used.
In the Senate, Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee, said he will not back a resolution that allows the United States to launch military action on its own.
"Going it alone is not the right approach at this time, and we shouldn't be threatening to," Levin said. "The possibility of avoiding war is enhanced if it's the world against Saddam rather than us against Saddam."
A senior Bush administration official criticized proposals that would make any presidential authorization for military force dependent on actions the United Nations or other nations decide to take.
"What would not make sense," the official said, is for "the president as commander in chief to be wholly obligated to only act on behalf of the United States if the U.N. did something."
Bush administration officials acknowledged that while the focus of the congressional resolution is on Iraq, the proposed language would give the president the authority to take action elsewhere in the Middle East. "The president would have the constitutional authority to take any actions to restore peace and security to the region. But the focus here is on Iraq."
Some moderate Republicans also are wary about giving Bush an open-ended authorization to use military force. Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Montgomery County Republican, said she shares the view that U.N. action must come before any congressional authorization of force.
"I am not prepared at this time to give the kind of maximum flexibility that [Bush] would need that would involve a war with Iraq," Morella said. "Until the case has been fully made, and the U.N. has come out with a resolution, and the allies are supportive, I am really not prepared."
Until this week, these concerns were expressed repeatedly by key Democrats. Some said they had many unanswered questions about the need and justification for an invasion of Iraq.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Delaware Democrat who heads the Foreign Relations Committee, and others in his party were warning against giving Bush a "Gulf of Tonkin-type resolution," a reference to the 1964 measure Congress passed that laid the groundwork for years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
But yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, sounded willing to consider -- even to collaborate in drafting -- a broadly worded resolution.
"We don't want to be a rubber stamp," he said of Congress. "But we do want to be helpful and we want to be supportive. I think most Democrats are wary of unilateral action. But we recognize that there are times when unilateral actions may be required."
The turning point in Democrats' thinking, many political strategists say, occurred Friday, when Bush ridiculed lawmakers who were advocating a go-slow approach on Iraq. The remarks made it clear that the administration would not back down -- despite Democrats' assertions that Bush was trying to politicize the issue -- in its insistence that Congress vote on Iraq before the November elections.
Now, Senate Democrats are resigned to getting the debate and vote on the Iraq resolution over with.
"There's an inclination to deal with this in an expeditious fashion, because I think the end result is not in doubt, and then get on with other important things, like unemployment and health care," said Sen. Tim Johnson, a South Dakota Democrat who is locked in a tough re-election contest.
Still, Democrats who are most concerned about a broad military authorization say it is important to show voters that they are as focused on Iraq as Republicans.
"I would like for us to be in a political position to argue to the American public that Democrats stand in a similar way against Iraq, even if we have a slightly different view," Hastings said.
Sun staff writers Mark Matthews and David L. Greene contributed to this article.