WASHINGTON -- After three days of impassioned debate, a divided Congress authorized President Bush yesterday to wage war against Iraqi troops encamped in Kuwait.
By votes of 52-47 in the Senate and 250-183 in the House, lawmakers effectively gave the president a free hand to prosecute his escalating contest of wills with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, granting him the right to use all means necessary to evict Iraq's forces after the Jan. 15 deadline the United Nations Security Council has set for their withdrawal.
"In the next few days, Saddam Hussein -- not George Bush, but Saddam Hussein -- will make the decision as to whether we have war or whether we have peace," Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., told a packed Senate chamber. "Let us make sure, as he makes that decision, that he understands exactly where America stands and exactly what America is prepared to do."
"The time for patience has ended, and the time for firmness has arrived," thundered Representative Stephen J. Solarz, D-N.Y., to subdued colleagues moments before the historic vote was cast. "The great lesson of our time is that when evil is on the march, it must be confronted."
The White House, which once had warned that a close vote would be interpreted overseas as a sign of irresolution, reacted to yesterday's vote as if it constituted an unqualified victory.
In a hastily arranged news conference, President Bush told reporters that Congress had "strongly firmed up" his bargaining position. Its action, he said, represented "the last best chance for peace and the best shot for peace."
Yesterday's vote came after each chamber, meeting in rare Saturday session, rejected separate resolutions calling for the president to rely on economic sanctions and diplomacy to compel an Iraqi withdrawal. The House voted 250-183 and the Senate, 53-46, against the resolutions.
The House, meanwhile, began yesterday's session by overwhelmingly approving a symbolic resolution that claimed for Congress alone the constitutional power to declare war. It also stated Mr. Bush must seek congressional authorization before ordering any offensive military action. The vote was 302-131.
It was the final vote of the day, however, that presented Congress with its starkest choice on the issue of war or peace since World War II.
"It was more serious debate now than it was back then," said Representative Jamie L. Whitten, D-Miss., the longest-tenured member of Congress and the only current lawmaker to have been present when Franklin D. Roosevelt asked for a declaration of war against Japan. "Back then, there was only one side to the argument. This time, both sides had a very strong case to make."
Indeed, both sides contended that their respective positions would lead to the surest peace.
Mr. Bush's supporters argued that they would lend him the clout he would need if diplomacy were to have any chance of success. His opponents countered that any consideration of a military strike was premature, that sanctions and diplomacy had to be given more time to take effect and that Congress ought to give permission for war only when war was the last remaining resort.
The majority of Democrats came down on the side of sanctions. But enough Democrats supported the president in the House to give him a comfortable margin of victory. Nine Democrats backed Mr. Bush's position in the Senate, where Democrats hold a 56-44 majority.
Only two Republicans -- Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Sen. Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon -- voted against the administration. Mr. Hatfield was the only senator to vote against both resolutions, saying that he could never support any military action in the region.
"It is very obvious to me that this is not a war our nation should fight," Mr. Hatfield said. "This is not a war we, as a nation, are prepared to fight. Not for oil, or pride or anything else. Not now. Not ever."
White House officials had repeatedly insisted that the president, in his constitutional role as commander in chief of the armed forces, had all the authority he needed to enforce all U.N. resolutions. But congressional leaders, smarting from accusations that lawmakers were seeking to avoid striking a firm position on the gulf crisis, insisted that the legislature cast a vote on the administration's strategy.
Seeking to avoid a constitutional crisis, White House lobbyists worked assiduously to line up support in both chambers behind a resolution that mirrored the U.N. Security Council document establishing Tuesday's deadline. One official proclaimed yesterday's vote -- the result of that effort -- as the "best that could be expected."
At his news conference, Mr. Bush said that final congressional action meant that "the U.S. position has been strongly firmed up" and was an "unmistakable demonstration" that a united government now supported "a complete and unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait."