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Congressional Democrats Remain Divided Over Iraq Resolution

In the U.S. Congress, Democrats remain divided over a resolution authorizing military action against Iraq, even though the measure is expected to overwhelmingly pass both the House and Senate. 2004 Presidential politics appear to be playing a role in the debate.

The chief sponsor of the Senate resolution authorizing use of force against Iraq is Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who has made no secret of his desire to seek his party's nomination for president in 2004.

Speaking on the Senate floor this week, he responded to some of his fellow Democrats who criticize what they believe is a rush to judgment on the Iraq issue. "My answer to 'why now?' is 'why not earlier?' Others have said 'there has been no provocation. Why are we not waiting for an attack to occur?' Well, why after the devastation of September 11, 2001 would we want to wait until an attack occurs by someone who is clearly arming and threatening us?" Mr. Lieberman said.

Senator Lieberman is one of several Democrats with presidential aspirations who are leading efforts to win Congressional passage of the resolution.

Others include Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, and House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, who reached agreement with the White House last week on the text of the resolution clearing the way for House passage.

Other Democrats, however, are frustrated by their colleagues' swift support of the resolution.

Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia is one of the most vocal opponents of the measure, which he believes would relinquish to the executive branch Congress' Constitutional power to declare war. "I cannot understand it: Why much of the leadership of this Congress has bought into the administration's political pressure. Congress will be out of business, out of the business about war, and the voice of the people will quickly be drowned out by the White House beating on the drums of war," he said.

For their part, Democrats who support the resolution argue that for far too long their party has been perceived by the public as weaker on national security issues than the Republican party, and that the time has come to change that.

Senator Evan Bayh made the point on Fox News Sunday saying, "Well, there is no question if you look at the public opinion polls that the majority of the American people tend to trust the Republican party more on issues involving national security and defense than they do the Democratic party. I think we need to work to improve our image on that score by taking a more aggressive posture with regard to Iraq."

Political observers say prospective Democratic presidential candidates are following the example of a former Senate colleague.

Steven Hess of the Brookings Institution says, "They have to think back to the lessons of the comparable resolutions in December 1990 about the Gulf War, in which the Democratic candidate who most favored the then-President Bush, Al Gore, ultimately got the nomination and some other candidates who opposed it, found that it was an obstacle in their future efforts to seek higher office."

Former Senator Al Gore of Tennessee was one of the few Senate Democrats to vote in favor of the Gulf War resolution in 1990. Two years later he became the party's vice presidential nomination, and he and Bill Clinton went on to win the White House.

Mr. Gore, who unsuccessfully challenged George Bush for the presidency in 2000 with his running mate Senator Joe Lieberman, is considering making another bid for the White House in 2004.

Mr. Gore recently offered his own position on Iraq. But unlike the position he took 12 year ago and unlike the strong stand Senator Lieberman is taking, Mr. Gore believes the Bush administration has not made a case for military action against Iraq.

That position has left Mr. Gore isolated from the field of other potential presidential candidates from his party.

But Allan Lichtman of American University says it appears Mr. Gore is acting on his convictions, rather than on political handlers, whom the former vice president now blames for giving him bad advice in the 2000 campaign. "I think Gore concluded after the 2000 election that the reason he lost is that he was not true to himself, that he was cutting things too finely, listening to consultants and handlers, trying to move up too safely to the center. I think he concluded the way to win the nomination and perhaps the presidency against a president who has got to be heavily favored right now is to take a sharply dissenting position on principle," Mr. Lichtman said.

Mr. Lichtman says the split among Democrats on the Iraq issue concerns party leaders. Those leaders, he says, want the vote on the resolution over with quickly so Democrats can campaign on other issues.