What the `world's greatest deliberative body' has been up to lately

July 16, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - The Senate likes to be known as the world's greatest deliberative body, but the times it acts like it are few and far between. Issues of great import seldom are given long and serious attention by the full body.

It did happen in the fall of 2002, when President Bush's resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq was adopted amid administration claims of impending peril from supposed Iraqi doomsday weapons that are yet to be found.

But since then, the Senate has essentially punted on the whole issue. A prominent proponent of congressional oversight, Democratic Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, recently took the Republican majority to task for holding virtually no public hearings on the misleading claims made by administration officials about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and ties to al-Qaida.

But the congressional Democrats as a group have not been much better. On that 2002 vote on Mr. Bush's war resolution, their House and Senate leaders counseled their party brethren to vote for the resolution to get it off the table. By doing so, they hoped the flagging economy would bring Democratic gains in the approaching elections. The strategy failed miserably.

In the last few days, the question of administration policy in Iraq did come up on the Senate floor. But it came basically in the context of the Republicans' effort to elevate the issue of same-sex marriage over the troublesome issue of Iraq.

As the GOP leadership bowed to party strategists who calculated that a debate on a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage would rally the Christian right to the Bush re-election banner, Democrats in effect played the Iraq card, demanding that the Senate's time would be better spent discussing the administration's failure to meet the crying needs of first responders of homeland security.

Considering that even the Republicans acknowledged that the amendment didn't have a chance of getting either the 60 votes required to cut off debate or the 67 for passage, the whole debate was a farce from the beginning.

Yet hours of palaver were spent as the amendment's most impassioned proponent, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, pleaded that the opposition show more concern about protecting marriage as a man-and-woman traditional value. "I would argue that the future of our country hangs in the balance," he declared.

In response, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, citing a greater peril, stood by a large placard at her desk quoting Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge this month: "Credible reporting now indicates that al-Qaida is moving forward with its plans to carry out a large-scale attack on the United States in an effort to disrupt the democratic process."

She added: "I have heard my colleagues say the reason for this amendment is that the American family is in a fragile condition. One of my colleagues says marriage is under assault by gay marriage or gay relationships. I want to tell you something straight from my heart: Not one married couple has ever come up to me and said that their marriage is under assault because two people of the same gender living down the street care about each other."

Thus has the world's greatest deliberative body been spending the fleeting time before the start of the Democratic National Convention in Boston barely more than a week from now; it will effectively put politics on the front burner until Election Day in November. No wonder Congress is held by the public, as its institutional politeness would put it, in minimum high regard.

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

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