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Fighting across the aisle

By Karen Tumulty/Washington
With reporting by John F. Dickerson, Mark Thompson, Michael Weisskopf/Washington and Johanna McGeary/New York

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If Democrats in Congress are about to back Bush on Iraq, why are the two sides zinging each other? Think midterm elections

Something about as rare as the alignment of the outer planets was under way in the Capitol last Wednesday: Tom Daschle was mad, really mad. The famously unflappable Senate majority leader had stormed into an aide's office that morning sputtering, "This is outrageous!"

Then he raged some more during a meeting in which he and other Senators were supposed to be reviewing the latest Hispanic polling numbers. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin finally cooled him down: "Count to 10. Call some close friends. Wait an hour before you say anything."

When Daschle took the Senate floor later that morning, everyone knew something big was coming; more than half the Democratic Senators emerged from their offices and committee rooms to see it for themselves.

What set Daschle off were the morning's papers, which quoted President Bush as telling a political rally that the Democratic Senate was "not interested in the security of the American people." Bush had been talking about a stalled homeland-security bill, but the narrow criticism would instantly have a wider and damaging resonance. And that's what sent Daschle into orbit. Punching the air at times, his voice cracking into an infuriated whisper, Daschle demanded an apology. "We ought not to politicize the rhetoric about war and life and death," he said. "This has got to end, Mr. President."

Down at the White House, the President was said to be confused, hurt and just as mad. "I never said that," aides quoted Bush as saying. "I don't say that. I want to see where I said that." And that is about as close as the two parties have come in a month to combat over a possible war with Iraq: a wayside debate about the debate itself.

What once looked like a great clash between two political parties about a seismic shift in U.S. strategic doctrine is shaping up instead to be a street scuffle about the exact wording of a resolution that sanctions attacking Iraq, with a few kicks and punches tossed in about whether the Republicans are talking up war in order to score well in the midterm elections.

The Senate is expected to begin considering a resolution this week authorizing Bush to use force to disarm Saddam Hussein; both chambers could vote as early as next week. The question is not whether Bush will win, but by how much: with a weaker resolution and a big majority, or with stronger language that makes for a closer vote? Hoping for a landslide, the White House has dropped language that could have allowed Bush to expand the use of military force beyond Iraq to other countries in the Middle East. But it is refusing to accept other limitations, such as language that would allow military force only if diplomacy fails.

How Bush wins will also say much about the President himself. He came to Washington promising to "change the tone" that had made public discourse so foul over the last decade. But in recent speeches and statements, Bush has come closer and closer to saying that anyone who raises questions about his policies is reckless and even unpatriotic. "He feels very strongly about this stuff, and so he pushes it right up to the line," says a senior adviser. "He wants to shame them."

But he was beginning to look a little too eager for war. Just a day after British Prime Minister Tony Blair released a new dossier of infractions by Saddam Hussein--a dossier that made no mention of the Iraqi leader's links to al-Qaeda--both National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were cranking up new accusations of links between Saddam and the al-Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden. That night, as the Daschle explosion ruled the evening news, Rice appeared on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and said "high-ranking detainees" had told the U.S. that Iraq "provided some training to al-Qaeda in chemical-weapons development." Then she added, "We don't want to push this too far, but this is a story that is unfolding."

The next day Rumsfeld told reporters the U.S. has "solid evidence" that senior al-Qaeda operatives have been in Baghdad "in recent periods," although he could not confirm whether they are still there.

Reviving the al-Qaeda--Baghdad link had a lot to do with Bush's efforts to follow a victory in the Congress with another win at the United Nations--a challenge that now preoccupies U.S. diplomats.

To get the maximum number of votes in the U.N. Security Council, European allies, led by Britain, have been pressing Washington to give Iraq an option of forestalling war by cooperating with weapons inspections, a carrot before the stick. The Bush team is willing to go along--but not for very long. The White House circulated a draft resolution late last week that accepts the British approach in principle but then called on Saddam Hussein to declare all his weapons of mass destruction within seven days of U.N. action.

The Bush Administration wants to give Iraq no more than a month to open all its military sites and weapons plants to inspectors. It is already clear that the trick to writing a winning resolution will be to find language that includes enough patience to keep the Europeans from opposing the U.S. or abstaining in the Security Council--and enough of an ultimatum to keep Washington from bolting the U.N. and acting alone. Evidence that Iraq is harboring or helping terrorists gives the U.S. another argument in the battle of the wordsmiths--and could also provide another rationale for an invasion if weapons of mass destruction are counted, found or removed. "Are we throwing everything against the wall?" asked a White House official, who then answered his own question. "We're throwing everything on the wall and connecting the dots."

The Bush team was also busy making its case in private, because it is only behind closed doors that lawmakers and Bush aides feel it is safe to debate the implications of waging war against a country that has not first attacked the U.S. or its interests. As Rice briefed a group of House members last week, a Democrat challenged her argument for a pre-emptive strike. By that reasoning, he said, we should have invaded the Soviet Union in 1948 to keep them from getting nuclear weapons. "In light of 50 years of bondage of Eastern Europe," Rice replied, "that was probably a reasonable thing to do."

Although the White House has continued to insist that the timing of the Iraq vote in Congress has nothing to do with an upcoming and excruciatingly close election, war has become Bush's favorite topic as he stumps the country in a record-setting fund-raising effort for Republican candidates. He has taunted Democrats who argue for waiting until after the U.N. acts to pass a resolution authorizing force: "If I were running for office, I'm not sure how I'd explain to the American people--say, vote for me, and, oh, by the way, on a matter of national security, I think I'm going to wait for somebody else to act."

His pollster, Matthew Dowd, has said the Iraq issue "puts Republicans on a very good footing" for the elections and beyond. Dowd may be right: polls show that as war talk drowns out everything else, Democrats are losing the slight edge they had in congressional races when they returned from the August recess. They are increasingly worried about not only their effort to win back the House but also the possibility of losing control of the Senate. And they anguish over long-term damage: some say a prolonged fight over Iraq will resurrect an image that the Democrats spent decades trying to shake after Vietnam. "If we look like a bunch of left pacifists, it hurts our numbers," a Democratic Party official says. "In the congressional campaigns, it's killing us."

So, rather than drag out the conversation, most Democratic leaders want to get the Iraq vote behind them as quickly as possible, so they can spend what remains of the campaign season talking about issues that play to their strengths, such as Social Security, corporate corruption and providing prescription-drug coverage under Medicare.

The day after his dramatic Senate-floor speech, Daschle toted a chart into his daily briefing showing increasingly dire unemployment numbers. But changing the subject is getting harder to do, as more voters are coming to believe that the question of a fundamental shift in U.S. defense policy is at least as important as the value of their 401(k)s. Al Gore's speech in San Francisco last Monday was a stinging indictment of the Bush policy--made more powerful by the fact that as a Senator he had been one of the few Democrats who supported the first President Bush's war with Iraq. "By shifting from his early focus after Sept. 11 on war against terrorism to war against Iraq, the President has manifestly disposed of the sympathy, goodwill and solidarity compiled by America and transformed it into a sense of deep misgiving and even hostility," Gore said.

The speech drew decidedly mixed reviews, with liberal columnist Richard Cohen praising it in the Washington Post for its boldness, and the New Republic, which backed Gore for President as early as 1988, suggesting it was born of bitterness. Every pundit in the country also held up the speech to the light of 2004 and tried to divine whether Gore's words were just the opening salvo of a campaign to make Bush foreign policy Topic A. They got no help from Gore: when he came onstage the following day at a rally for Democratic candidates in Santa Fe, N.M., he was greeted by hand-lettered placards congratulating him and chants of "Say no to war!" But Gore never directly mentioned Iraq in his comments, offering instead his well-worn litany of jokes about the indignities of being a former Vice President ("Now I gotta take my shoes off to get on an airplane.")

Gore's blast and Daschle's tirade did hearten liberal Democratic donors--some of whom have begun threatening to withhold contributions unless the party stands up to Bush on Iraq. Singer Barbra Streisand's political adviser faxed a "confidential memo" to House minority leader Dick Gephardt, a strong backer of military action, urging Democrats "to get off the defensive."

The memo pointedly noted that Streisand had delegated an intermediary to write it--because the pop diva was busy rehearsing for a concert in Los Angeles that was expected to raise $4 million for House Democrats. The shooting war may be months away, but the war of words has already begun. Bush will be ready with his own broadsides, including one about Saddam Hussein that he's been reluctant to use in the past.

"There's no doubt he can't stand us," Bush told an audience at a fund-raising dinner in Houston. "After all, this is the guy that tried to kill my dad."

Copyright © 2002 Time Inc.

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