WASHINGTON -- Like the little Dutch boy who stuck his finger in the dike to try to save his country's lowlands from floods, Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia used the Constitution in a futile effort yesterday to block the tidal wave of support for President Bush's war resolution on Iraq.
Pulling his weathered copy from his jacket and waving it as he has often done over his 44 years in Congress, the Senate president pro tem offered an amendment reiterating Congress' explicit power under Article I, Section 8 "to declare war. "
In so doing, Mr. Byrd mocked "the White House lawyers" who have contended that the Constitution also gives Mr. Bush the power to initiate military force on his own. They cite the Article II, Section 2 stipulation that the president "shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States."
Pounding his fist in the air, Mr. Byrd demanded to know "where in the Constitution does it say the title commander in chief" carries with it such power to declare war. The president, he thundered, was trying to claim a constitutional power never intended by the framers to be his, "and we're going to be foolish enough to give it to him."
Those White House lawyers, Mr. Byrd went on, were attempting to redefine the Constitution to enable the president not only to repel unforeseen attacks on the United States but also to launch pre-emptive action at any time of his choosing.
"What in the world are they teaching in law schools today?" asked the 84-year-old, who spent 10 years in night school for his own law degree.
While there may be a legitimate difference of opinion over what the Constitution does or doesn't do in bestowing that power, the fiery senator was certainly right in his prediction of the Senate's treatment of his amendment. With only minimum debate, his colleagues overwhelmingly rejected it in the rush to give the president what Mr. Byrd and others call a blank check to act against Iraq.
With all 100 senators voting on what many have said is the most critical issue they ever have to face, only 13 others joined Mr. Byrd in defense of their own most important constitutional power. Only 11 Democrats sided with him, along with one Republican, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and one independent, James Jeffords of Vermont.
The Democrats were Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Paul Wellstone and Mark Dayton of Minnesota, Barbara Boxer of California, Richard Durbin of Illinois, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Patty Murray of Washington.
Of these, Mr. Durbin and Mr. Wellstone are up for re-election, the latter in a particularly tight race against former the former Republican mayor of St. Paul, Norm Coleman, a strong supporter of the president on his war plans. Yet they did not hesitate to side with Mr. Byrd.
Considering how much most senators often make of their congressional prerogatives, many more Democrats, particularly those not facing re-election, might have been expected to side with their respected senior colleague on a matter that so obviously is a cherished one to him. It being clear from the start that the Byrd amendment would not pass, backing it and then voting for the war resolution would have been an easy throw-away vote.
But the Senate Democrats, and especially all those in the House who must face the voters on Nov. 5, have been so pressured by the House to go along with Mr. Bush or risk being cast as soft on national defense and homeland security that they have simply rolled over.
Many of them, to be sure, accept the president's argument that the threat from Iraq is imminent and the powers he has sought must be given. But the Democratic leaders in both houses have also been conspicuously eager to put the war issue behind them in the hope of refocusing voters on domestic ills.
As in the Gulf of Tonkin resolution of 1964 with a Democratic president, Congress has willingly put aside concern over its own prerogatives on the plea of a Republican president to trust him. Let's hope it's more warranted than the last time.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.