A whip's limited power

October 04, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- As Democrats squirm over President Bush's plans to invade Iraq, no one is more in the middle than their No. 2 leader in the House, Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi of California.

As the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, for a decade she has been in the forefront of the effort to curb proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. Yet she has major reservations about the United States' invading a sovereign country and about Mr. Bush's new doctrine of pre-emptive military action wherever and whenever he sees an "imminent" threat to America.

Her party's highest female officeholder in Congress, Ms. Pelosi has been traveling around the country on behalf of Democratic congressional candidates. If the Democrats can pick up six House seats in November to gain party control, she presumably would become House majority leader, with Richard Gephardt moving up to speaker.

In her travels, Ms. Pelosi says, "I don't hear much support for war." Yet when the president "one day announces that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction that pose an imminent threat," it's hard for average Americans not to rally behind him.

As a member of the intelligence committee and one of four Democratic congressional leaders privy to the most classified administration briefings on the issue, Ms. Pelosi says, however, that she does not see persuasive evidence yet that any such attack on the United States is imminent.

Given the public reservations she has encountered, Ms. Pelosi says, there should be more consultation and education of the American people about the nature of the threat, the cost in wealth and lives to deal with it, the effect on the American economy and what happens in Iraq after a successful military campaign.

But Ms. Pelosi is not the Democratic leader in the House, only the No. 2, and Mr. Gephardt, as House minority leader, has long been in general support of ousting Saddam Hussein by diplomatic means if possible, by military means if necessary. In fact, he has just endorsed a modified version of Mr. Bush's war resolution. Also, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has pointedly said he favors approval of some war resolution sooner rather than later so that the congressional election campaign between now and Nov. 5 can turn to domestic matters, on which Mr. Bush is more vulnerable.

So Ms. Pelosi finds herself, despite her key House leadership position, limited in what she can do to slow down the runaway train to war. She says she agrees with Mr. Daschle that pressing domestic issues such as prescription drug benefits for the elderly, the stock market doldrums and Social Security repair also demand congressional attention.

Asked why the war resolution could not be put off until after the election to allow the public's voice to be heard, she says the votes simply are not there to delay it in the Republican-controlled House. The president, she says, "has the votes to get his resolution and will get it," though in modified form.

At the same time, however, Ms. Pelosi says voting for war should not really be up to a lame-duck Congress. A number of the members are retiring or will be defeated on Nov. 5 and won't be around when the actual fighting presumably will be taking place in the new year.

Ms. Pelosi says she takes some solace in that Mr. Bush finally has agreed to seek both U.N. and congressional authorization for the action he contemplates if Iraq refuses to disarm its weapons of mass destruction. What the Democratic leadership can do now in the Senate, she says, is to keep pressing for more justification from the administration about the urgency of acting now and insisting on the congressional consultation role.

This posture is not likely to satisfy Democrats who are increasingly calling on their party to rein in this president. Listening to Ms. Pelosi, one suspects that she shares the frustration but is soldiering on to make the best of a dismal situation.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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