WASHINGTON -- A band of die-hard liberals took to the floor of the House last night -- long after most House members had headed home for a 10-day recess -- and, one at a time, denounced the war against Iraq.
They faced rows of empty seats and spoke for television cameras that would carry their message to hard-core aficionados of congressional cable coverage -- and, they hoped, a casual channel-switcher or two. While some of them spoke, others took another stab at influencing the course of the war, circulating a petition among colleagues that read, simply: "It is our belief that there is no need to escalate the war in the Persian Gulf."
Thus passed another fusillade from the congressional anti-war caucus, an ad hoc band of 20 or 30 Democrats seeking to halt an armed conflict that has the official imprimatur of both the United Nations and Congress.
"It's a long shot; the odds are against us, and the political pressure is against us," conceded Representative Ronald V. Dellums, D-Calif., unofficial leader of the group. "But to do anything less than speak our consciences is to shirk the responsibilities of public office."
By all accounts, it is a lonely struggle.
No member of the Democratic leadership appears willing to associate publicly with the organization -- partly, aides say, because party lead
ers want to project an image of resolution to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and partly, they admit, because party strategists fear the political consequences of opposing a war the United States appears certain to win.
"These guys are as popular as the plague," confided one staff aide.
Nor does the task before Mr. Dellums and his colleagues promise to be a particularly rewarding one. Although 183 House members and 47 senators voted Jan. 12 against the resolution authorizing the president to use force to liberate Kuwait, only 12 lawmakers -- all of them in the House -- voted "no" or "present" on a subsequent resolution backing the troops in the gulf region and supporting President Bush's actions as commander in chief.
"There's a natural base of support and sympathy for what they're trying to do," said a House Democrat who attended the group's anti-war meetings until the U.S.-led multinational force began pounding Iraqi targets from the air. "But as long as things over there are going our way, you're not going to see many members go much beyond a kind of covert sympathy."
Still, Mr. Dellums and his cohorts express tentative hopes that their case may find a sympathetic hearing, particularly amid the growing perception that a ground war against Iraqi troops is about to begin.
Yesterday's petition reflected an attempt to broaden their ranks while the war grinds on, an effort they hope will prove more productive than their last one.
That took place last week, when several anti-war Democrats agitated among colleagues for a resolution supporting a joint statement issued by the United States and the Soviet Union. Initially, the statement was interpreted as promising Iraq a comprehensive Middle East peace effort in exchange for an "unequivocal commitment" to leave Kuwait.
The White House soon rejected that interpretation, however, restating its opposition to "linkage" between Iraq's withdrawal and resolution of the Middle East's factional disputes, particularly between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Meanwhile, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., privately warned the group that any such resolution would have to wend its way through the full congressional legislative process -- a tactful way of saying that it would not be supported by the leadership.
So they sought to circulate a petition expressing those sentiments. That idea died, however, when it failed to attract more than a fraction of the members of the anti-war group itself.
"If we believe what General [Norman] Schwarzkopf has told us, Saddam Hussein's regime is on the verge of collapse all by itself," Representative Dellums said of the commander of U.S. forces in the gulf. "Why risk the loss of life that would come from ground combat?"
But with Congress in recess while rumors of imminent ground action ricochet about the Capitol, many of Mr. Dellums' anti-war allies expressed frustrated doubts about their ability to do anything to change the course of the war.
"What can we do but meet and talk?" fumed Representative George Miller, D-Calif.