WASHINGTON - Closing ranks behind President Bush as the nation marches toward war with Iraq, senior Republicans and Democrats in Congress said yesterday that they would put aside deep and long-standing differences over the conflict to unite in support of U.S. troops about to be sent into combat.
Even as some harshly criticized Bush for failing to win international support for an offensive against Saddam Hussein, top Democrats signaled that the time for challenging his course was coming swiftly to an end.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee and one of his party's staunchest opponents of a war in Iraq without United Nations approval, said yesterday that he was finished clashing with Bush on Iraq.
"Those of us who have questioned the administration's approach, including this senator, will now be rallying behind the men and women of our armed forces to give them the full support that they deserve, as it now seems certain we will soon be at war," said Levin, one of 23 senators who voted in October 2002 against authorizing Bush to use force to disarm Hussein.
That is as it should be, Republican leaders said yesterday.
"There is a proper time and place for vigorous debate, but now is the time for America to speak with one voice," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas.
Bush consulted only briefly with senior lawmakers last evening in advance of his national address, summoning the top leaders and committee chairmen to the White House to inform them he would issue a 48-hour ultimatum to Hussein.
"Sadly, we stand on the brink of war," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat who has been an outspoken opponent of Bush's policy in Iraq, after the speech.
"If our troops are ordered into action, Americans will support and stand united behind our courageous men and women in uniform who will bear the burden of that action."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said after Bush's address that Congress fully supports U.S. troops. Bush "has shown great patience and given diplomacy every chance to work, but as he stated tonight, the time to act has arrived," Frist said.
Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who is a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee and a leading skeptic of Bush's Iraq policy, continued to voice reservations about the decision.
"We're moving now without a broad-based international consensus on what ought to be done, and I regret that," Sarbanes said, adding that weapons inspectors should have been given more time to work.
But he added, "If the president puts our troops into action, we obviously support our troops, our men and women in the armed services. We'll be very supportive."
After the Bush speech, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the Democratic whip and a supporter of the war resolution, said: "Whether Hussein's disarmament is achieved through diplomacy or military force, our brave men and women in uniform in the Middle East and throughout the world must know that we stand united behind them and support them."
Still, a group 15 of anti-war House Democrats including presidential hopeful Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio circulated a statement yesterday maintaining that their coalition "continues to oppose the administration's rush to war."
Perhaps the sharpest condemnation of Bush's decision came from Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat who initially opposed last year's war resolution but ultimately voted for it.
"I'm saddened," Daschle told a labor group yesterday afternoon, "saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war, saddened that we have to give up one life because this president couldn't create the kind of diplomatic effort that was so critical for our country."
Despite some Democrats' deep concerns about pursuing a war without U.N. support, the House and Senate, in lopsided bipartisan votes in October, approved resolutions giving Bush the authority he needs to attack Iraq unilaterally.
No more debate
"There's disappointment that we were not able to work with the international community," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat. "But once the president gives the command and the troops are in harm's way, all of us will be doing everything we can to support our troops. We won't be debating any longer whether we should be using force once force is called on."
In the event of a war with Iraq, Congress is expected to quickly pass resolutions expressing strong support for American troops serving in the conflict.
But Congress' role will not be all flag-waving and cheerleading. Bush is expected to send Congress supplemental spending requests in the coming weeks to pay for war costs. Lawmakers will soon be demanding details from the administration about how it plans to prevent chaos in Iraq in the aftermath of the attack and how it will rebuild the nation after Hussein is toppled.
Some already were raising those questions yesterday, as the Senate began debate on a 2004 budget plan that includes Bush's $726 billion tax cut but does not include funding for a war and reconstruction in Iraq.
Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, called the budget "reckless," adding, "That is burying our head in the sand as danger approaches."