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'War Powers' Debated in US Congress - 2003-01-31

The effort by a key Senate Democrat to compel President Bush to return to Congress for another vote on possible military action in Iraq have re-focused attention on the power of the legislative branch of government to declare war.

"[The] ayes [yes votes] are 296, the nays [no votes] are 133. The joint resolution is passed. Without objection, the motion to re-consider is laid upon the table.

It was with that fall of the gavel on October 10, 2002 that the House of Representatives gave President Bush the authorization he sought to take military action, if necessary, to disarm Iraq.

Only minutes after the vote, President Bush appeared at the White House to praise the House vote. "The House of Representatives has spoken clearly to the world, and to the U.N. Security Council," he said. "The gathering threat of Iraq must be confronted, fully and finally."

The Senate followed suit one day later, approving the resolution by a margin of 77 to 23. Both votes occurred weeks before the United Nations Security Council approved Resolution 1441, crafted by the United States and Britain, requiring Iraq to cooperate with new U.N. inspections.

With all that has happened since, and in the wake of President Bush's strong comments in his State of the Union address, it is easy to forget the intensity of the debate in Congress over Iraq.

Under the Constitution, the President is Commander in Chief, but Congress holds the power to declare war. However, presidents have frequently committed U.S. forces to conflicts and have sought to bypass Congress.

During last year's debate on the Iraq resolution, there was renewed intense debate over "war powers". Some of that debate is now being re-visited, as a result of a resolution being offered by Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

He voted against the Iraq resolution last October and has accused President Bush of pursuing what he calls a "go-it-alone" policy on Iraq. After the president's State of the Union address, Senator Kennedy said Mr. Bush should seek an additional congressional vote. "The President of the United States should come to the American people, and give them the evidence of the imminent threat to American security, and then ask the Congress to pass a resolution if they are going to make that finding before we send American troops to war," he said.

The resolution introduced by Senator Kennedy is similar to a measure that was voted on, but rejected, by the House of Representatives on October 10.

Drafted by Congressman John Spratt of South Carolina, it would have required the president to seek a separate vote by Congress to authorize use of force. Congress would have voted immediately upon receiving the president's certification that U.N. efforts were not likely to compel Iraqi disarmament.

In debate last October, Congressman Tom Allen of Maine said it was critical that Congress have the final say. "We need to be more than the president's megaphone," he said. "We need additional consideration when the president has decided to use unilateral force, and when he can tell us what he has in mind."

Democrats were unable to generate enough support for this alternative to prevail over the main Iraq resolution. But 155 House members did vote for it. Lawmakers opposing any unilateral U.S. action in Iraq said this showed how widespread public opposition was to the direction the administration was heading.

Meanwhile, Senator Robert Byrd, another Democratic party critic of the administration, has proposed a resolution to require President Bush to seek a new U.N. Security Council vote before proceeding with any U.S.-led military strike on Iraq.

Neither the resolution proposed by Senator Kennedy, nor the one by Senator Byrd, are given much chance of success in the Republican-controlled Senate.