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Congressional Democrats Seek Debate on a Range of Issues - 2003-02-08

On a range of issues, from Iraq and North Korea to the economy, Democrats in Congress are trying to fire up debate about Bush administration policies.

Over the past two weeks, before and after major speeches by President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, Democrats tried hard to sway public opinion about key foreign and domestic issues.

Prior to his State of the Union Address, opinion polls were already registering a decline in the President's approval ratings from record highs. However, those numbers went up again after Mr. Bush's strong remarks on Iraq and North Korea. "Today, the gravest danger in the war on terror, the gravest danger facing America and the world, is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical and biological weapons," he said.

However, despite what most agreed was a very effective speech, Democrats seized on what they say is ongoing skepticism about a pre-emptive military strike against Iraq, and doubts about the President's economic stimulus plan, to score political points.

On Iraq, California Congressman Sam Farr, and Jim McDermott of Washington state, argue that Congress never relinquished its constitutional authority to declare war when it overwhelmingly approved a White House-backed Iraq resolution last October.

"The American public do not want to go to war. They do not want this Congress, which is to provide for the common defense of this nation, to use an excuse of defense to do an offensive war," said Mr. Farr. "It would be a mistake for this Congress to allow the President to decide for the United States to go to war, in its first pre-emptive war in history, with the Congress standing back and saying well, we just let him make the decision," said Mr. McDermott.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer had this response when asked what the President's reaction is to anti-war sentiment. "Of course, Americans don't want war. But Americans have always, throughout our history, shown a willingness to fight for peace when peace was threatened," he said. "And in terms of the expressions of support, I think all you need to do is look at the representatives of the people, for example, in addition to the public polling that you all have, and when you see that last year in the Congress in 2002, the vote in the Senate to authorize force was 77 to 23, and in the House it was 296 to 133."

Democrats also attacked the administration's handling of North Korea. Senator Joseph Biden said the administration does not appear, at least publicly, to be taking the situation seriously enough. "What happens if we don't resolve this crisis, draw some red lines, make it clear what our intention is, talk with these guys [the North Koreans]? What happens if six months down the road, they have started up the [nuclear] re-processing plant and we know they have enough plutonium for six nuclear weapons?"

The Bush administration rejects allegations of double standards in its handling of Iraq on the one hand, and North Korea on the other.

In testimony before Congress, Secretary of State Powell spoke to another allegation that the administration withheld evidence of a growing nuclear confrontation with North Korea until Congress had approved a resolution on Iraq. "I can just assure you, there was no consideration of it (information about North Korea's nuclear weapons efforts) being held, or not being made public, or trying to keep it from being leaked, until after the joint resolution [on Iraq]" he said.

On the economy, Democrats have almost daily targeted the President's economic stimulus plan and tax cut proposals, as well as his budgetary priorities for homeland security and education. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said "this administration has lost two-point-three million jobs in the private sector in its two years of existence, and yet this budget, with its focus on tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans, which does not stimulate the economy, does not create jobs, is a disappointment in that respect."

How effective have Democratic efforts to stir debate been? On Iraq, congressional observers say, not so successful - especially in the wake of Secretary Powell's persuasive speech to the United Nations Security Council.

Things are different with North Korea, observers say, because the administration is listening closely to a range of opinions, from Democrats as well as Republicans, on how that situation might be resolved peacefully.

On the economy, Democrats are helped by the fact that key Republicans have expressed misgivings about some of the President's proposals, such as reduction of dividend taxes.

However, President Bush enjoys a sizable Republican majority in the House, as well as a slimmer two seat majority in the Senate, but a majority nonetheless. Even with expected battles over some spending issues, and anxiety over the cost of a war with Iraq, the picture still appears bright for the President's legislative agenda.