WASHINGTON - House Democrats found themselves in a bind yesterday over the war in Iraq, struggling to find a way to join Republicans in support of a resolution commending U.S. troops without endorsing President Bush and a war many of them oppose.
The Senate united yesterday in a solemn show of support for U.S. troops at war in Iraq, voting unanimously to pass a resolution commending them and Bush. The House was poised to approve a similar resolution early this morning, but its consideration was delayed until late last night because of squabbling between Republicans and Democrats over how to word it.
Behind the scenes, House leaders negotiated for hours over the language of the resolution, with Democrats resisting wording that would express strong support for Bush himself, or appear to endorse the war in Iraq. Democrats have been deeply split over the war, which about two-fifths of them endorsed in October when Congress authorized Bush to use force to disarm Saddam Hussein.
Yesterday, Democratic leaders pushed to remove any mention of support for Bush or his approach to the crisis in Iraq - much as congressional Republicans did in 1999, when they balked at commending President Bill Clinton as part of a defense measure praising the accomplishments of U.S. troops in Kosovo.
In a morning phone call, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, urged House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, not to tie the resolution commending U.S. troops to a series of statements expressing support for Bush or for the war. Pelosi, who voted against the war resolution last fall, wanted to ensure that the measure was worded in a way most of her caucus could support, top Democratic aides said.
"Members, to a person, want to be unanimously in support of our men and women in harm's way, but certainly some of them will have problems if their solution lauds the president and his policies," New Jersey Rep. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said yesterday.
By late evening, Democrats had agreed to bring up a resolution that appeared to do just that, expressing "the unequivocal support and appreciation of the nation" to Bush as commander in chief, U.S. troops and their families.
Democratic leaders took pains earlier yesterday to demonstrate that their disagreement with Bush on the crisis in Iraq and his efforts at international diplomacy does not dampen their enthusiastic support for U.S. troops in combat.
"Dictators and despots too often mistake democratic debate for disunity. There is no disunity," said Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the Democratic whip. "There should be no mistake today. We are unified in support of our men and women, who bravely put themselves, all volunteers, in harm's way on behalf of their country, on behalf of our people, on behalf of our security."
The Senate interrupted work on its 2004 budget plan to allow members to speak and vote in support of the troops. By late afternoon, it had passed a resolution officially commending U.S. soldiers, the president and British Prime Minister Tony Blair for his "courageous and steadfast support."
"We prayed for peace, we worked for peace, but the Iraqi regime chose a different destiny. Now our mission is clear: to use the full might of the American military to disarm Saddam Hussein and liberate the Iraqi people from his oppressive rule," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican. "As they do, they have the full support of this body, and the American people behind them."
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who weathered withering attacks this week from Republicans after criticizing Bush for failing to avoid war, said yesterday that he is behind the president.
"Once our president makes the decision to commit troops, the Congress has always come together to speak with one voice for one purpose: to support the efforts of our troops and to pray for their courage, their success, and their safe and quick return home. With pride and resolve, we do so again today," the South Dakota Democrat said.
"We may have had differences of opinion about what brought us to this point, but the president is the commander in chief, and today we united behind him as well," Daschle said.
Sen. John W. Warner, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, praised the two Senate leaders for the bipartisan resolution of support. "We will start to have unity in this chamber, and to have a very constructive and clear debate," the Virginia Republican said.
As Frist and Daschle stood next to each other on the Senate floor, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said he wished U.S. troops deployed in Iraq could see them standing shoulder to shoulder. "This picture is a very eloquent statement about the unity of this Congress once we are committed to combat," he said.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and respected voice on defense issues, compared today's troops to the "greatest generation" that served in World War II. "Another generation of history is being forged from the ruins of the attacks of September 11," McCain said.
Several House Democrats opposed to war gathered yesterday to register their continuing opposition to the war in Iraq.
"While I support the troops," said Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat and presidential contender, "I cannot support this mission."
But in a very public airing of the party's private disagreements about its message on Iraq, Rep. Jim Marshall of Georgia strode into the news conference to declare that "the time for debate has passed," and to call on his Democratic colleagues to support the war.
"There's an absolute right to debate - my preference is that we do not," Marshall said. "I frankly think we should be quiet for a little while."