WASHINGTON - In concept, a grand memorial honoring those who served in World War II, the nation's so-called greatest generation, would seem like a natural - an inspiring, patriotic project that few could argue with and many believe is long overdue.
But since it was authorized by Congress eight years ago, the World War II memorial has been mired in hearings and legal proceedings, controversy and delays, with opponents objecting to its proposed location in the middle of the National Mall, in the sweeping open space between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.
Yesterday, with Memorial Day fast approaching, Congress quickly pushed through a bill expediting the construction of the $160 million memorial on the 7.4 acres of prime real estate in the nation's capital.
The legislation, passed by the Senate on Monday by unanimous consent and by the House yesterday by a voice vote, puts the project on a fast track. Most notably, it nullifies both a lawsuit brought by a coalition of historians, architects and even veterans groups who object to the location and a federal commission's plans to reconsider both the site and the design next month.
"We want this memorial finished while a significant number of our comrades in arms are alive," said Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, a World War II veteran. "We want to be there when this memorial is opened."
But opponents - including D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Maryland Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who were among the handful of lawmakers who objected to the location - were disappointed, some livid, that Congress interfered with the standard review process for monuments.
Gilchrest, a Republican whose father served in World War II and who himself is a Vietnam veteran, said he thought it was a mistake for Congress to make "what amounted to an arbitrary decision" on something as important as a monument, intended to last "not only the next hundreds of years, but the next thousand."
Norton told her colleagues the Mall is "the urban equivalent of the Grand Canyon. ... There should never be anything planted in the middle" of it. She urged them to visit the site before construction begins "and look at that unob-structed vista for the last time."
But such opponents have been battling an all-star team, including the White House, most veterans groups, "Saving Private Ryan" star Tom Hanks and, in the lead, a symbol of the World War II generation, former Sen. Bob Dole.
Eager for the bills to pass, Bush noted last week that only 5 million of the 16 million men and women who served in World War II are still alive, and those remaining are dying at a rate of 1,100 a day. "It is more important than ever that we move quickly to begin construction if those who served are to see the nation's permanent expression of remembrance and thanks," he said.
As national chairman of the memorial, financed primarily through private contributions, Dole has been an aggressive cheerleader and fund-raiser for the project. With Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner, whose Touchstone Pictures releases the World War II epic "Pearl Harbor" this weekend, Dole arranged for three former Senate colleagues and fellow veterans - Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, John W. Warner of Virginia and John McCain of Arizona - to appear on ABC's hit game show, "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?" and have their winnings go to the memorial fund. But the Senate Ethics Committee turned down the idea.
Until Congress stepped in, opponents of the project - some of whom filed a suit in federal court in October accusing the government of violating its own laws and regulations in the site selection - thought they smelled success.
The National Capital Planning Commission had decided this month to, basically, start over after the Justice Department questioned the validity of its final vote approving the memorial's site and design. The deciding vote, the Justice Department said, had been cast by the previous commission chairman, Harvey Gantt, after his term had expired.
But with both the lawsuit and the commission's plans for new hearings invalidated this week by the bipartisan legislation, veterans who opposed the project said they felt so betrayed by Congress that they would give their war medals back to the government if the project is pushed through.
The House and Senate are "letting it seem, if you'll excuse me, that Hitler won the war," said Clark Ashby, 78, of Carbondale, Ill., a World War II veteran who came to Washington this week to speak against the legislation. "We were fighting in that war exactly against what is going on here."
Aside from objections over the location, opponents have seized on environmental concerns.
Some have charged that pumping out ground water during construction of the memorial could destabilize the wooden foundation of the nearby Washington Monument.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott dismissed such concerns this week, saying, "Nobody wants to do anything to undermine the Washington Monument. If there was any legitimate concern about that, I'm sure it would be addressed."
The design, chosen in 1996 from 404 entries in a nationwide competition, has also been criticized, described as everything from overly ornate to, as the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call put it recently, "the architectural equivalent of the D.C. Convention Center."
Designed by Friedrich St. Florian, former dean of architectural studies at the Rhode Island School of Design, the structure would consist of a circle of 56 granite pillars capped by bronze wreaths, with two four-story triumphal arches and a sunken stone plaza and reflecting pool. St. Florian scaled back his plan to this after early complaints from members of Congress and others that it was too "bulky and massive."
Originally, the memorial was to be situated in a less central location on the Mall, alongside the Reflecting Pool near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But in 1995, the Commission of Fine Arts, one of the two federal agencies whose approval is required, successfully lobbied for the switch to the grander, more prominent location.
Last October, after final plans for the memorial were approved, the coalition of architects, civic groups, preservationists and historians filed suit in federal court alleging violations of federal law in the review process, including insufficient public involvement and environmental impact studies.
The lawsuit blocked construction from beginning. And the specter of public hearings to be held by the National Capital Planning Commission next month to reconsider the site and design threatened to delay the project even further.
Now, with Congress putting the project back on track, construction could begin within months and be completed within three years. Yesterday, the author of the House bill, Rep. Bob Stump of Arizona, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said, "I sincerely hope this is the last legislative action Congress will have to take before the dedication of the World War II memorial in 2004."