January 19, 1991

After preening itself for its unwonted decorum and earnestness in debating the Iraq war resolutions, Congress has reverted to form. Pettiness and partisanship prevail once again on Capitol Hill.

On the first day after fighting erupted this week the Senate retired to its backrooms, there to squabble whether, in expressing support for American troops in action, they should or should not toss a few words in the direction of the commander-in-chief. Republicans were in favor of doing so; Democrats were against. In the end, they produced a fudge that was approved unanimously. The president was "commended," though not by name. The troops were commended "unequivocally," an adverb not bestowed on George Bush.

"Mealy-mouthed," was the judgment of House GOP leader Bob Michel. "It's like they're rubbing our nose in it," complained Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa -- the "it" in this instance being "hortatory language" from Republicans about "how great the president is." Perhaps the most pertinent remark came from Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, who said "Congress has a proclivity for looking silly."

All this posturing provided an outlet for the highly politicapassions that the legislative membership tried hard to suppress last weekend -- until a largely party-line vote was taken. Many Democrats were flatly against any military involvement in the gulf but pretended they merely wanted sanctions to be given more of a chance. Many Republicans pretended they wanted to send one more message in the interest of peace when they knew they were casting the die for war. But at least Congress offered what one observer called "a veneer of responsibility, a sheen of gravitas."

Down the road, all lawmakers know their votes on the war resolutions will weigh heavily in their next election campaigns, depending on how the war turns out. Meanwhile, House Democrats have already scheduled hearings on what the post-war scene may look like and what policies it will require. All very factual, of course; nothing political.

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