The failure of Secretary of State James A. Baker III’s diplomatic mission in Geneva created a crisis atmosphere Wednesday among members of Congress, causing many Democrats to temper their criticism of President Bush’s Persian Gulf policy.
As gloom settled over the Capitol, many leading Democrats declared their intention to support the President’s request for permission to go to war against Iraq--the first congressional authorization of U.S. military action in more than a quarter-century.
In addition, the President’s supporters said the outcome of Baker’s meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz has increased the prospects that both the House and Senate will vote decisively in favor of any war resolution sought by Bush.
“The fact that (Iraqi President Saddam) Hussein has been absolutely unwilling to negotiate--it might change some minds,” said Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), who plans to support Bush. “The fact that Saddam Hussein has completely ignored reality is going to affect the debate. My prediction would be that a majority of members will support the President.”
Even opponents of the President’s hard-line policy against Iraq acknowledged that the mood is changing on Capitol Hill. “They will rally around the President at this time of crisis,” predicted Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D-Fla.), who said he plans to argue against Bush’s request.
Both the House and Senate are expected to begin debate today on the President’s Persian Gulf policy. The House is expected to vote Saturday; the Senate will vote early next week.
Democratic leaders said they still plan to offer an alternative resolution that would not permit Bush to attack Iraq immediately. But House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) indicated that they will bring no pressure to bear on Democrats to support the party position and vote against the President.
While many members of Congress expressed hope that a strong vote in favor of the President’s request would persuade Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, there is nevertheless a growing feeling among them that war now may be inevitable.
“I think it’s looked like war for some time,” remarked Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Added Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.): “The outlook for an agreement on some kind of settlement before Jan. 15 is bleak.” That is the deadline set by the U.N. Security Council for Iraq to evacuate Kuwait or face possible military action.
Some members of Congress were meeting with the President at the White House when Baker called him after his meeting with Aziz. When the President returned to the meeting room after taking the call, according to Murtha, he stunned the lawmakers by reporting that Aziz had “stiff-armed” Baker.
It was at that moment that the members of Congress in the room were fully persuaded of the President’s determination to follow through on his threat to intervene militarily if Iraq fails to withdraw from Kuwait.
Murtha is one of a small cadre of prominent House Democrats--including Fascell and Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.)--who have been working with the President’s aides to draft a resolution expected to garner the support of many House Democrats as well as Republicans.
Unlike the measure to be offered by the House Democratic leadership, the Administration-backed resolution would not require the President to return to Congress for additional approval before going to war with Iraq. It would, however, require Bush to notify Congress that he had exhausted all diplomatic means of settling the matter before he would be permitted to unleash U.S. forces.
Orange County’s congressional delegation generally has backed Bush’s handling of the crisis, although some have expressed reservations about the level of support offered by U.S. allies.
On Wednesday, Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton) reiterated that concern in a “Dear Colleague” letter. Reflecting the views of many conservatives, Dannemeyer was especially critical of the “parsimonious” support for the Desert Shield effort from other nations.
“We deserve more than rhetorical support from our friends,” Dannemeyer wrote. “Our allies should assume responsibility for this massive undertaking in proportion to the benefits they derive from it.”
Dannemeyer said Congress should support the use of force only if the United States exhausts all reasonable diplomatic efforts to avoid war, if U.S. military commanders have clear authority over the entire multinational force and are free of political interference from Washington, and if U.S. allies contribute a fair share to the cost of the military effort.
In the Senate, the President’s proposal is expected to win more votes than the resolution drafted by Mitchell and other Democratic leaders.
Senate sources said the Democratic proposal would permit Bush to use U.S. military force in the Persian Gulf only to enforce the economic embargo, defend U.S. troops and prevent an invasion of Saudi Arabia. If Bush wanted to mount a military offensive against Iraq under the Senate Democrats’ plan, he would be promised “expedited” consideration of such a request.
Predictably, those members of Congress who are still undecided about how they will cast their vote were reminded frequently of their patriotic duty to support the President.
“It’s now time for the American people to rally around the President and support the 400,000 American troops now poised in the gulf,” said Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).
But no matter whether they had decided to support the President or go against him, all members of Congress were painfully aware of the importance of the vote facing them.
“In my 16 years here, I can’t think of any vote that people will remember as much as this one,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).
Times staff writer Robert W. Stewart in Orange County contributed to this report.