Daschle sounding a note of caution

Senate leader bucks tide, would limit president's authority for war on Iraq

October 07, 2002|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a sun-drenched White House Rose Garden, key congressional Republicans and Democrats gathered around President Bush on Wednesday to show what Bush called "our unity of purpose" in confronting the threat posed by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle wasn't on the guest list.

Instead, the South Dakota Democrat, whose party holds a one-vote Senate majority, remained at the Capitol - the odd man out among top House and Senate leaders. As they were loudly endorsing a new resolution giving Bush broad authority to invade Iraq, Daschle was quietly refusing to do so.

With consensus growing in Congress for granting Bush the sweeping power he wants to launch a unilateral attack, Daschle has cast himself as a leading voice of caution. Bush, calling on Congress to "speak with one voice" on Iraq, has tried to rally the nation and its representatives to back a possible invasion. Yet Daschle seems determined to question what has become a popular bipartisan stance.

No one doubts that the House and Senate will vote this week to give Bush the power he wants. Both chambers are expected to approve a resolution allowing Bush to attack Iraq, so long as he declares to Congress that diplomacy has failed and that military action is consistent with U.S. efforts to fight terrorism.

Daschle's insistence on weighing alternatives - to narrow Bush's authorization or to impose limits on when it could be used - is a risky effort to influence a debate in which critics are being drowned out by the noise of bipartisan unity.

"As long as I think there is at least a chance that we could make additional improvements, I want to try to do that," Daschle said. "I think it's too early to give up on making the effort."

Instead of signing on to the Bush proposal, which has been blessed by Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the Democratic leader in the House, Daschle wants the Senate to vote on two options that would limit the president's authority to wage war.

The choice might be a gamble for Daschle and for a handful of Senate Democrats seen as vulnerable in next month's elections, in which Daschle's post as majority leader hangs in the balance. Political strategists say voters will cast ballots based mainly on domestic issues - not the debate over Iraq - especially now that an agreement has emerged to back Bush.

Still, Daschle's stance risks giving Republicans the ammunition to paint Democrats as reflexively anti-war, in a year when Bush has accused Senate Democrats of not caring enough about national security.

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, said the bipartisan consensus on display at the White House last week "maybe blunts a little of the criticism" of some Democrats for not backing Bush. But once voters go to the polls, Lott argued, Daschle's opposition to the Bush resolution "could be a factor in people's minds."

"When it comes to national security and defense and foreign policy, people have more confidence in Republicans," Lott said. "So, hopefully, that will benefit Republican candidates."

It is impossible to say how the Iraq issue will play in the elections. But it is clear that Daschle must strike a balance between supporting a popular president in a hawkish foreign policy stance and asserting his role as leader of a Senate deeply divided over that policy. Gephardt faced similar pressures, but as minority leader of the House, he lacks Daschle's power to influence the debate.

Policy of pre-emption

Daschle's position, colleagues and staff members say, springs from his concerns about Bush's new military doctrine of pre-emption - and from his position as the leader of Senate Democrats, including some who deeply oppose the Bush policy on Iraq.

The majority leader came of age during the Vietnam War era. Though he did not fight in that conflict, he served as an Air Force intelligence officer for three years during the war. Daschle has often staked out the role of skeptic to Republican defense policies; he was among the 45 Democrats who voted against the resolution allowing Bush's father to attack Iraq in 1991.

"He's always had a progressive streak on foreign policy and defense issues," said John Isaacs, a senior associate for policy at the Council for a Livable World, a Washington group that advocates arms control.

Daschle also has criticized Republican plans to build a national missile defense system, as well as Republican positions on nuclear testing.

"He has been adept at developing this kind of progressive position on those and other issues," Isaacs said.

Daschle's resolve not to allow Bush's Iraq resolution to sail through unchallenged stems in large part from his skepticism about the administration's new policy of pre-emption.

The White House proposal asserted that the president has no intention of allowing any other nation's military strength to approach that of the United States, and that "we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively."

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