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US Congress Offers Little Debate on Iraq - 2003-03-15

While the United Nations debates whether to debate a resolution authorizing use of force to disarm Iraq, a key U.S. lawmaker is criticizing the lack of debate in Congress on the issue. Senator Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, is concerned by the Senate's silence on the prospect of U.S.-led military action against Iraq.

There has been no formal floor debate about the possibility of military action against Iraq in Congress since October, when the House and Senate passed a resolution authorizing President Bush to use force if necessary to disarm Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

It is particularly unusual for the Senate, often called the world's most deliberative body, to be so quiet on an issue as serious as war. It is a point Senator Byrd repeatedly makes. "What would these signers of the Constitution have to say about this Senate, which they created, when they note the silence, the silence that is deafening, that emanates from this chamber on the great subject, the great issue of war and peace? Nothing, nothing is being said, except for a few souls," he said. "Yet this chamber is hauntingly silent, hauntingly silent.

Part of the reason the Senate has not engaged in more debate might be that it is not in the interest of the Republican leadership. It is intent on playing down divisions over Iraq.

While most Republicans continue to support President Bush's policy, several are beginning to question the lack of international support for war, as well as administration tactics. At a recent Senate hearing, Senator Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska was especially tough on Defense Department Undersecretary Douglas Feith, who declined to offer cost estimates of possible military action and post-war reconstruction. "Excuse me, Mr. Secretary, if you are having a problem now getting into it, what the hell kind of problem are you going to have when we get in there?"

Democratic leaders, for their part, are also reluctant to press for more debate on Iraq, because they too do not want to highlight fissures in their party, especially ahead of next year's election.

Anti-war liberals, including Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, believe their position is bolstered by stepped up international opposition to military action and progress reported by arms inspectors in Iraq. "I continue to be convinced that this is the wrong war at the wrong time," he said.

But other Democrats fear a repeat of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when Democrats paid a political price for opposing what turned out to be a successful military campaign.

Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who is seeking his party's nomination for president next year, said "if it comes to war, the war against Saddam will in my opinion be just and it will be necessary, and we will win it."

Political analyst Ross Baker of Rutgers University in New Jersey says there are other reasons for the lack of Senate debate on Iraq. He said public opinion polls appear to tell lawmakers that more Americans support the president than oppose him. Mr. Baker also argues that Congress traditionally defers to the president in the area of foreign affairs, especially during what he calls times of national peril. "This simply goes to prove the dominance of the president in terms of American foreign policy. That is, the president asked for authorization [to use force against Iraq] in October, got the authorization in October, and what has happened since has been from a simply statutory point of view, moot," he said. "Whatever has occurred, whatever progress the inspectors have made, the president still has the authorization in his back pocket and Congress was loath to take it away from him."

Mr. Baker, noting that only Congress has the power to declare war, expressed concern over the legislative branch's willingness to yield to the executive in matters of war and peace. He said the challenge for Congress is how to remain constitutionally relevant, not only with war possible in Iraq, but with the United States fighting a war against terrorism.