For Dissenters, ‘Nos’ Were a Vote of Conscience


They spurned the president. They broke ranks with party leaders. And they asserted that the American people and history were on their side.

They were the dissenters: 133 House members who voted Thursday and 23 senators who voted early today against a resolution to grant President Bush broad authority to make war against Iraq if diplomacy fails to stop the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

As they spoke, the dissenters made clear their revulsion of the Baghdad regime.


“Saddam Hussein is a disturbed, dangerous leader. We should deal with him,” said Rep. Amo Houghton of New York, one of only six House Republicans to vote against the resolution.

But Houghton said the time is not right. “Why don’t we win the war against terrorism before we start another fight?” he asked.

For Houghton and a handful of others in Congress, the vote was something of a reversal. He voted for the 1991 Persian Gulf War resolution.

Most who voted against this year’s Iraq resolution were Democrats: 126 in the House and 21 in the Senate. That was not necessarily a surprise. Bush’s relations with Democrats have frequently been strained.

But the number of Democrats who dissented was nonetheless striking. Democratic leaders had figured that at least half of their 208 members in the House would back the resolution after Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) endorsed it.

Instead, more than three in five House Democrats--including Gephardt’s top lieutenant, Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco--were dissenters. Party leadership aides ascribed the large “no” vote to three factors.

First, they said, Bush has had trouble reaching out to Democrats. Second, newly drawn district boundaries have increased the job security of many incumbents. Third, the opponents--including elements of the vote-counting operation headed by Pelosi--worked hard to round up votes, while Gephardt did not try to twist arms.

Still, many of the dissenters made clear that the vote was one of the toughest of their careers. They said they relied more on conscience than ideology in making up their minds.

Democratic Rep. Ed Pastor, the only dissenter from Arizona, said he opposed a policy of “preemptive attack, which we have so long and so rightly condemned, without first providing a limited-time option for peaceful resolution.”

Among the no votes, clear patterns emerged along geographic, racial, ethnic and gender lines.

Eighty of the House dissenters came from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, including 24 of the 32 California Democrats. The state’s 20 House Republicans voted en masse with Bush.

Only 53 House dissenters came from states in the U.S. heartland, and most of those are from urban areas in populous states such as Ohio, Texas, Illinois and Michigan. The remainder are often lonely voices in their state delegations.

Democratic Rep. Vic Snyder, for instance, was the only representative from Arkansas to oppose the resolution.

Snyder, a Vietnam War veteran, said the nation’s top strategic goal in the Middle East should be to solve the security issues for the Israelis and Palestinians--"even if it means 40,000 or 50,000 U.S. troops stationed there for years.”

The two largest minority blocs in the House--the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus--voted overwhelmingly against the resolution. Of 37 African American lawmakers, 32 were opposed, and of 19 Latinos, 15 were opposed.

Some cited strong anti-war sentiment in their districts.

“In my district, I’ve only gotten three requests to vote for the resolution against hundreds and hundreds,” said Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), who is African American. Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), who also voted no, said his mail and phone calls were running 200 to 1 against the White House-backed resolution.

In addition, 35 of the 59 women in the House voted no. Their ranks included Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.).

Morella, who represents a liberal suburb of Washington and is in a tough reelection contest, objected to taking “this final and irrevocable step of authorizing full-scale military action” until every other option is exhausted.

Most opponents said the president should give U.N. inspectors a chance to find and disable Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Only if such a last-ditch initiative fails, they said, should Bush come back to Congress for another vote to authorize military action.

A go-it-alone approach, the dissenters said, would hamper efforts to build a global coalition against Iraq and could ignite a tinderbox in the Middle East. “We’ve seen progress,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), “but this resolution would brush it all aside.”

Opponents also said they were unconvinced that Iraq poses an imminent threat.

“There is absolutely no evidence any thinking person could give that says we are in danger from Saddam Hussein today,” said Rep. Pete Stark (D-Hayward). “You are in more danger from the snipers running around in Prince George’s County,” a reference to a recent series of shootings in Washington’s suburbs.

Two California Democrats who opposed the 1991 Gulf War resolution, Reps. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles and Calvin M. Dooley of Fresno, voted Thursday for the White House-backed resolution.

But one California Democrat switched the other way. Rep. Gary A. Condit of Ceres, who supported the 1991 resolution, dissented Thursday.

The Senate debate ended with a vote early today that also underscored the Democrats’ division.

“Democrats don’t walk in lock-step,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who also opposed the Bush-backed resolution. “We’re independent thinking, and I believe the people want that.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), another dissenter, added: “The president has not decided that our nation should go to war.... But this resolution leaves it to the president to make the decision on his own, without further recourse to Congress or to the American people.”

Kennedy’s arguments, however, couldn’t sway his own son. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) voted for the resolution.