Morella says she'll oppose Bush's Iraq resolution

Conscience won't allow it, Maryland Republican says

October 10, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella said yesterday that she will vote against a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, a wrenching decision - particularly in an election year - that again placed her between the wishes of her party and the sentiment of her liberal Maryland district.

Morella becomes the third of 223 House Republicans to formally oppose President Bush's plan, on which a House vote is expected today. Reps. Ron Paul of Texas and Jim Leach of Iowa are the other two.

On the House floor yesterday, she said every other option should be exhausted before voting to subject Americans and others to "the horrors of war."

It's not the first time Morella has been squeezed between her party and the suburban Washington district, in which Democratic voters outnumber Republicans more than 2-to-1. In 2000, she said her district's political leanings would have obliged her to back Democrat Al Gore if the disputed presidential race ended up being decided by Congress.

But the timing of the Iraq resolution, as well as the stakes - "It is literally a decision of life or death," she said - will make this vote particularly tough. As she outlined her position yesterday, Morella, who has won eight consecutive elections in the 8th District, was facing a statistical dead heat in her race against Democratic challenger Christopher Van Hollen Jr.

The district is viewed by both parties as a swing seat in the battle for control of the House. Democrats need a net gain of six seats to assume a majority.

While Morella has benefited financially from her GOP membership - a June fund-raiser with Bush netted about $400,000 - she said her conscience would not allow her to back the president on the Iraq resolution, which is expected to pass with bipartisan support.

"As a mother of nine children, I cannot help but think about this issue on a personal level," said Morella, who raised her late sister's six children. "Can I, or can any parent, look into the eyes of an 18-year-old boy and with a clear mind and clean conscience say that we have exhausted every other option before sending him into the perils of combat?"

Fifty-one percent of likely voters in the Montgomery-dominated district opposed military action against Iraq by 51 percent, with 31 percent in favor, according to a poll conducted for The Sun and The Gazette newspapers late last month. While some segments of the Democratic Party's base, particularly in the Jewish community, support military intervention, about three-quarters of the district's Democrats are against it, the poll shows.

"This is a very savvy, sophisticated district and clearly voters in the 8th are troubled by the plan to take out Saddam Hussein militarily," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, which conducted the poll. "One could portray Morella as very courageous - that her positions are intact despite the huge contributions coming from the White House."

Her opponent has also urged caution before proceeding with military strikes in Iraq.

Steve Jost, Van Hollen's campaign manager, suggested that Morella is in trouble in the Nov. 5 election not necessarily because of her positions, but because of her party. "If Democrats were in control of the House, we'd be debating a different sort of congressional resolution, without unchecked [presidential] powers, and I think people know that," Jost said.

With a relative scarcity of GOP voters, Morella has been successful at election time in drawing thousands of Democrats to her side.

She won re-election by margins of 22 percent and 20 percent, respectively, in 1996 and 1998 but squeaked by - 52 percent to 46 percent - in 2000 after Democrat Terry Lierman repeatedly argued for a Democratic-controlled House.

But this year, long before the Iraq debate, there have been signals that some of her Democratic supporters are prepared to turn against her. According to the poll, a significant number may abandon her for a chance to control the House.

In the poll of 480 likely voters, Morella's favorable rating was 77 percent. But 66 percent of Democrats, whose crossover votes she has so long relied upon, said they consider it important to elect a Democrat in the race this year.

One such Democrat, Harold Bingham, a Bethesda general contractor, can't remember an election in which he didn't vote for Morella when she was on the ballot. "I admire her for her independence, which is hard to find these days," he said.

Last night, he applauded her for her Iraq decision. "We need to be make sure we have support from the rest of the world," he said. "What she did is consistent with what she's done in the House."

But despite his admiration for Morella, he said he remains undecided because he, too, wants Democrats running the House.

Such views have left Morella wondering what more she can do. She said she appreciates her popularity but doesn't want to settle for being an unusually well-liked loser.

"I hear, `Yes, she's been there for me, she's helped my uncle and my mother, but we just don't want to have a Republican House,'" Morella said recently.

Morella says Democrats should note that many prognosticators are forecasting that the GOP is likely to retain control of the House on Nov. 5.

And if that happens, Morella says, "Do you want to lose your moderate, experienced voice that has seniority and a place at the table in the majority party?"

Over the years, some supporters have suggested to Morella that life would be simpler if she changed parties.

"I've been offered overtures to change parties," she says, not disclosing when. "But I feel I do more to bring moderation to my party and work across the aisle."

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