Congress draws praise, regardless of war vote


After voting to authorize the use of force in the Persian Gulf, Rep. Helen D. Bentley went to a meeting in Harford County and encountered a dozen relatives of troops in Saudi Arabia.

These families stand to lose more than most if President Bush exercises the authority Congress gave him Saturday. But none of the people gathered at the Joppa-Magnolia Fire Department condemned Bentley, R-2nd.

"They all thanked me for my vote," she said yesterday.

So far, several Maryland members of Congress say they're finding support and understanding from the public, even people who oppose the use of force.

The reaction has bolstered the lawmakers' own feeling that, no matter how they voted as individuals, Congress performed its duty well.

"It was probably the highest-caliber debate Congress has had in this century," said Rep. Beverly B. Byron, D-6th.

But there's no rejoicing on Capitol Hill; the possibility of war has lawmakers worrying about the troops. Bentley, for one, would not hesitate to use all the weapons in the United States' arsenal.

"Nobody would object if we used nuclear force," she said. "If I were calling the shots, you bet I would."

The resolution authorizing force passed 52-47 in the Senate and 250-183 in the House. It won approval after the alternative was defeated 46-53 in the Senate and 183-250 in the House.

Bentley, Byron and Reps. Tom McMillen, D-4th, and Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-1st, voted for the resolution authorizing Bush to use force if he determines peaceful alternatives aren't working.

Six members of the Maryland delegation voted for continued sanctions: Democratic Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski and Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd, Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, Steny H. Hoyer, D-5th, and Constance A. Morella, R-8th.

The historic debate in the House and Senate, devoid of the grandstanding and glib sloganeering so common on Capitol Hill, was what people wanted, Maryland lawmakers say.

"They felt the system worked," says Cardin. "People felt good about that debate."

He has run into people opposed to or supportive of the resolution that passed, but in all cases the reaction "has been friendly."

Gilchrest, a new member of Congress, went to a Chamber of Commerce dinner Saturday unsure what people would say. But there, and elsewhere, he has found "an overwhelming, surprising show of support."

"They were glad to see Congress work as well as it did," he says. "They feel good about the president being supported by a united Congress that conducted itself the way it did."

"People aren't overjoyed about it," Gilchrest says. "But they felt, I guess, the way a majority of the House felt. It was the best chance for diplomacy to work."

Even so, there's no illusion about what Congress did, lawmakers say.

"For all intents and purposes, it was a declaration of war," Cardin says.

The momentous decision made, Congress was returning today to its regular business, with many lawmakers fearing war will soon interrupt their work.

"I go back and forth," says Byron, pessimistic because of Iraq's apparent unwillingness to bend, hopeful because she must be.

"The horrors are so horrible," Byron says, "there has to be a peaceful outcome."

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