Bush to seek OK of Congress before taking action on Iraq
By Susan Milligan, Globe Staff, 09/05/2002
WASHINGTON -- President Bush promised yesterday to seek congressional approval before a possible attack on Iraq, pleasing members of Congress but failing to satisfy their demands for more information about his plans and about evidence of an imminent threat from Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
In a morning meeting with congressional leaders, Bush offered what lawmakers have been insisting on for months, a pledge to involve Congress in any decision to go to war, as his father did before the Persian Gulf War more than a decade ago. The president also said he would make administration officials available for House and Senate hearings on Iraq, expected to begin later this month.
"Saddam Hussein is a serious threat," Bush told reporters after his White House meeting with the congressional leaders. "He is a significant problem. And it's something that this country must deal with.
"One of the things I made very clear to the members here is that doing nothing about that serious threat is not an option for the United States. At the appropriate time, this administration will go to the Congress to seek approval for -- necessary to deal with the threat," the president said.
Bush sealed his pledge with an official letter he gave to congressional leaders, making a written commitment to "seek congressional support for US action to do whatever is necessary to deal with the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's regime."
Republican congressional leaders indicated that a vote on such a resolution could come before Congress recesses next month, but Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota, said the timing depends on when Bush asks for a vote.
Daschle did say he was "very encouraged" by Bush's willingness to involve Congress and "very appreciative" of the opportunity to talk directly to the president about it. But Daschle, like many other senators, said he would withhold a decision on whether to support a military attack until he sees more evidence.
"Before we can all agree to make an intelligent judgment, we have to have all the intelligence," Daschle said.
Neither Bush nor Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, who briefed senators at the Capitol in the afternoon, provided any new information to persuade Congress to sanction a US attack on Iraq, according to both Democrats and Republicans who attended the meetings.
"There wasn't a lot of new information this morning," said Senate minority leader Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi. But Lott said Bush assured lawmakers that "that information, when needed, will be forthcoming."
Rumsfeld "was asked repeatedly" to detail evidence against Hussein, but "he was unwilling to respond to the questions," said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts. Many senators had been under the impression before the meeting that Rumsfeld would lay out the administration's case for war with hard facts, said both Kennedy and Senator Bob Graham, Democrat of Florida.
"We learned nothing, but we can't tell you," joked Senator John B. Breaux, Democrat of Louisiana, as he left the meeting.
Lott predicted that a vote on a resolution authorizing or supporting the use of force against Iraq could come as soon as this month, a scenario that would force some lawmakers to go on the record on the issue in the middle of their reelection campaigns. Polls have shown deteriorating support for an attack against Iraq, although the numbers in favor were higher when the hypothetical situation included congressional and allied support.
Many lawmakers are wary of opposing a popular president a year after the Sept. 11 attacks. "I think that we do have to worry about the politicization of this issue," Daschle said. "And I think that there are skeptics out there who wonder to what extent the political implications of any of this may affect the elections."
Several senators said they expected Bush to make a more concrete case for an attack next week, when he delivers a speech to the United Nations in New York. Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who was in South Africa for a conference, also suggested the president would make his case next week to oust Hussein, who Bush said "has sidestepped, crawfished, weaseled out of any agreement he had made not to develop weapons of mass destruction."
Republican Representative Henry J. Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said the administration has promised the panel's members a classified briefing on Iraq before they begin hearings the week of Sept. 23.
The president noted that he would be meeting this weekend with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and on Monday with Prime Minister Jean Chretien of Canada to talk about Iraq and other topics. He also said he would be calling the leaders of France, China, and Russia. No US ally has shown any enthusiasm for a US attack on Iraq, and political leaders here and abroad have warned about the consequences of unilateral action.
A few Republicans sought to calm congressional worries about a war in the incendiary region. "The president has indicated all along he is a patient man," Lott said.
Senator Robert F. Bennett, Republican of Utah, said the White House "is not trigger-happy" and is "weighing all the alternatives." Bennett said his colleagues should consider the risks of inaction if Hussein is allowed to develop weapons of mass destruction, even nuclear weapons.
Various questions continue to trouble many in Congress. Lawmakers want to know how a war would be waged, who would replace a deposed Hussein, and who would be responsible for the political and economic cleanup after a war. Further, members of Congress want more evidence that Hussein, who has used chemical weapons, is developing biological and nuclear weapons and is ready to use them against the United States.
When asked whether she would vote for a use-of-force resolution if it were presented to her that day, Senator Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, said, "I'm not prepared to vote on it today."
Representative Doug Bereuter, Republican of Nebraska, said the House would probably not approve such a resolution at this point because the administration has not shown that a threat from weapons of mass destruction is imminent.
Kennedy said an attack on Iraq without UN Security Council approval would "violate international law" because it would be a preemptive war. Bush should get approval from the United Nations first, Kennedy said, then come to Congress for what the senator predicted would be an overwhelming vote of support.
Without backing from the United Nations, Bush would need a declaration of war from Congress to be able to proceed, Kennedy contended.
The White House in recent months has held the position that the administration does not need congressional approval to launch an assault, arguing that President Bush still has authority to act under the resolution Congress approved for his father, George H.W. Bush, in 1991.
That argument has not been embraced by lawmakers in either party, some of whom are already irked at what they see as a lack of consultation from the White House on both foreign policy and domestic matters.
Senators, who returned from the monthlong August recess this week, were anxious about the war speculation, and lawmakers in both parties increased demands that the president line up support for such an action from Congress, US allies, and the American people.
It's "a very amateurish and almost irresponsible, relatively cavalier way to approach a major international issue," said Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts.
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