President Bush formally asked Congress yesterday for broad authorization to "use all means," including force, to disarm and topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, regardless of whether the United Nations supports such action.
"If you want to keep the peace, you've got to have the authorization to use force," Bush said yesterday after he sent Congress a proposed resolution that administration officials said aims to give him the "maximum flexibility" he would need to take action in Iraq.
The resolution, if approved, would give him sweeping authority to try to oust Hussein and eliminate any Iraqi biological, chemical or nuclear weapons programs.
The submission sets the stage for a congressional vote as early as next week on the measure, which would hand Bush sweeping power to "defend the national security interests of the United States against the threat posed by Iraq, and restore international peace and security in the region."
Nearly all congressional lawmakers say they regard Hussein as a threat and believe he should be forced to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction or face dire consequences. But while almost all Republicans support the administration's request, some Democrats expressed concern that the proposed resolution is far too open-ended.
"It's irresponsibly broad. It's a nonstarter. It's astonishing," said Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin as he emerged from an evening huddle of Democrats. Asked whether many Senate Democrats shared that view, Feingold said: "I was amazed at how many, and even more forcefully than I was."
The bipartisan consensus that has solidified in Congress in favor of quickly authorizing the use of force against Hussein has made some wary Democrats shift their approach. Though they recognize that Congress is headed toward approving some sort of authorization, they are determined to impose conditions. Their task is made more difficult by the momentum in favor of giving Bush the authority he wants.
With midterm elections just six weeks away, the White House is asking Congress to vote on Iraq before mid-October. And because leading Democrats want to turn the national focus back to their party's signature economic issues, they have concluded that they have no choice but to back a resolution and pass it quickly.
"The sooner we get to this, the better off we are," said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority whip. "We have so many other things to do."
Some Senate Democrats said they were particularly alarmed by wording in the resolution that declares that the authorization can be used to "restore international peace and security in the region."
Democrats expressed concern that this wording could give Bush license to use force against other countries in the Middle East, such as Iran, Syria or Libya, without coming back to Congress for authorization.
"Many people feel that it's such a blank check that it would allow any president to do almost anything anywhere," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat.
Some House Democrats who could be asked to vote as early as next week on an Iraq resolution said they are concerned that the White House proposal would not require the president to turn to diplomatic negotiations before launching an invasion of Iraq.
"Generally, all of us are supportive of the president and the troops once we get there, but a lot of us would like to make sure, before we get into the shooting side of things, that we have exhausted all our diplomatic alternatives," said Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, a Florida Democrat.
The House International Relations Committee is expected to approve a resolution next week that would closely parallel the White House proposal. It would give the president broad authority to act pre-emptively against Iraq, regardless of whether the international community supports such action.
Hastings, a member of that committee, is working with other Democrats, including Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, on an alternative that would set "preconditions" -- including diplomatic talks and efforts to renew U.N. weapons inspections -- before force could be used.
In the Senate, Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee, said he will not back a resolution that allows the United States to launch military action on its own.
"Going it alone is not the right approach at this time, and we shouldn't be threatening to," Levin said. "The possibility of avoiding war is enhanced if it's the world against Saddam rather than us against Saddam."
A senior Bush administration official criticized proposals that would make any presidential authorization for military force dependent on actions the United Nations or other nations decide to take.
"What would not make sense," the official said, is for "the president as commander in chief to be wholly obligated to only act on behalf of the United States if the U.N. did something."