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Post-Iraq Vote,  Congressional Democrats Turn Focus to Economy - 2002-10-11

With the vote authorizing use of force against Iraq behind them, Democratic leaders in Congress are seeking to refocus attention on the economy. They hope the issue will help their party in next month's mid-term elections. But other Democrats are not ready to abandon the debate over Iraq.

Even though the formal debate and vote on the Iraq resolution are over, some Democrats are continuing to urge President Bush to explain to the American people why the United States might take unilateral military action against Iraq and what such an operation would involve.

The resolution gives Mr. Bush the broad authority he sought to use force against Iraq, with or without United Nations support.

Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, voted for the resolution, but is demanding more answers from the president. It is a point he made clear in debate before the vote Thursday night.

"He has not yet made the case to the American people that the United States may have to solve this problem alone, or with relatively few people, or has he told us of the sacrifices that such a course of action will involve," he said. "I am confident he will do so if and when it proves necessary."

Meanwhile, one of the most vocal critics of the resolution, Senator Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, is not giving up his fight, despite passage of the resolution.

Mr. Byrd believes the measure hands to the executive branch Congress' Constitutional power to declare war. He is urging Americans who agree with him to lobby the White House - a call he made on the Senate floor shortly before passage of the resolution.

"I urge the people to keep on, who have encouraged us, in our efforts," he said. "I urge them to turn their attention to the president of the United States. Call him! Write him! e-mail him! Urge him to heed the Constitution, and not short-circuit this Constitution by exercising the broad grant of authority that the Iraq resolution provides."

In the Senate, nearly half the Democrats, including Mr. Byrd, voted against the measure, while, in the House, a majority of Democrats opposed it.

At the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer accentuated the positive when asked about the many Democrats who did not support the resolution.

"I know the president was very pleased to receive such outstanding and overwhelming bipartisan support from both houses," he said. "The president recognizes that this is a very difficult issue for many."

Congress' top Democrat, Senator Majority leader Tom Daschle who backed the measure, despite earlier reservations about Mr. Bush's stance, defended the debate and vote.

"I'm very proud of the debate we had and the role the Democrats played in fashioning a resolution that brought about the kind of bipartisan support you saw last night," he said.

At the same time, Mr. Daschle and other Democrats wasted no time in trying to change the subject.

With public opinion polls showing that Republicans are benefiting from the Iraq debate just one month before elections, Democrats are scrambling to focus attention on domestic issues, which traditionally benefit them.

Mr. Daschle joined House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt for a forum to discuss the flagging U.S. economy, which he noted Americans are very concerned about.

"The most recent polls are evidence that people are deeply concerned about the economy, and want us to do something about it," he said.

Many participants, including Senator Hillary Clinton, used the session to criticize Bush administration economic policy. "We have no economic plan, we have a lot of problems," she said.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer derided the Democrats' forum, calling it "a publicity stunt or tax hikers."