President Bush and Democratic congressional leaders sought to calm the political waters Thursday, one day after the top Democrat in the Senate accused the president of politicizing the debate over Iraq. A congressional vote authorizing the president to use military force against Saddam Hussein is expected within the next few weeks. But the lead-up to this year's debate is in sharp contrast to the congressional debate over Iraq just before the 1991 Gulf War.
With a congressional debate and vote on military action against Iraq now looming, both the president and opposition Democrats sought to tamp down the heated rhetoric from the day before.
On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said it was "outrageous" that the president had suggested earlier in the week that the Democrat-controlled Senate was "not interested in the security of the American people."
White House officials accused Senator Daschle of taking the president's statement out of context. They said Mr. Bush was merely expressing frustration with Senate Democrats who have slowed down his plan to establish a new cabinet department of Homeland Security by insisting on labor union protections.
On Thursday, the president tried to refocus the debate back on Iraq. He told reporters he is confident he will win bipartisan support for a congressional resolution authorizing the possible use of military force against Saddam Hussein. "We are engaged in a deliberate and civil and thorough discussion. We are moving toward a strong resolution. And all of us, and many others in Congress, are united in our determination to confront an urgent threat to America," Mr. Bush said.
Democratic congressional leaders say that while they are working with the president on a resolution, there is still no consensus among lawmakers as to what exactly that resolution should say.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle says Democrats will also be watching to see if the president and Republicans continue to make Iraq a key issue in the campaign for the November 5 midterm congressional elections. "Time will tell whether this exchange had any effect. Time will tell whether Republicans continue to go to [political] fundraisers and raise the war or raise questions of homeland security and national support," Mr. Daschle said.
The growing partisan acrimony over the Iraq issue stands in contrast to the 1991 congressional debate in advance of the Gulf War. Many of the lawmakers who took part in that debate say it was one of the most important of their congressional careers and recall with pride how the congress was able to rally behind President Bush's father, who was then president, and the U.S. troops sent to force Iraq out of Kuwait.
The main issue in that first congressional debate on Iraq was whether lawmakers should give the president authority to use military force or wait to see if United Nations sanctions would force Saddam Hussein to withdraw his troops from Kuwait.
Among those who argued for sanctions was Democratic Congressman Richard Gephardt of Missouri. "Sanctions are force. Sanctions are effective. Sanctions require rightful contributions from our allies and yes, sanctions succeed as these are succeeding," Mr. Gephardt said.
Congressman Gephardt is now the House Democratic leader and said earlier this year he would favor the use of military force against Iraq.
In 1991, Democrats controlled both the House and Senate. The House easily approved the president's request to use force but the vote in the Senate was much closer - 52 in favor of military force and 47 against.
The debate was partisan and hard-fought at times. But once the vote was taken and the fighting began, many of those who had opposed the use of force quickly rallied behind the president and U.S. troops, including Congressman Richard Gephardt. "The debate is behind us. The battle is upon us and victory is before us," Mr. Gephardt said.
In his speech announcing the start of the Gulf War on January 16, 1991, then-President Bush paid tribute to the tenor and style of the congressional debate over Iraq. "I had hoped that when the United States Congress, in historic debate, took its resolute action, Saddam would realize he could not prevail and would move out of Kuwait in accord with the United Nations resolutions. He did not do that," Mr. Bush said.
In the wake of this week's heated political rhetoric in Washington, lawmakers from both parties question whether the debate they are about to undertake on Iraq will have a similar unifying impact on the country.
The most complicating factor this year is the November elections. Democrats were firmly in control of the both the Senate and House in 1990 and the Iraq debate was put off until after that year's midterm elections.
This year, control of both chambers hangs in the balance and both parties are looking to campaign on issues favorable to them. That is why Republicans want to keep the focus on Iraq and terrorism as long as possible while Democrats would prefer to debate domestic issues like the economy, corporate fraud and health care.