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Profile: Opening Senate Debates On Iraq Include Impassioned Exchange Between Senators Byrd and Warner

All Things Considered: October 4, 2002

Iraq Debate


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Today two senators held a dramatic debate that exposed some of the deepest differences over the prospect of war against Iraq. The Senate is now considering whether to give President Bush the power to use force against Iraq, the power to start a war. Lawmakers held no votes today on the various war resolutions. But as NPR's Steve Inskeep reports, the senators did do what the Senate does best.

STEVE INSKEEP reporting:

Senator John Warner is one of the leading Republicans on defense issues. He supports a plan that would allow President Bush to go to war even without the support of the United Nations. Standing on the Senate floor today, the Virginia lawmaker said the only hope for peace is to give President Bush the maximum power to act.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): Throughout the history of the world, famous military leaders--George Washington and others--have said the best way to avoid war is to show clearly the preparations and the ability and the willingness to fight.

INSKEEP: Warner spent much of the afternoon debating with another silver-haired senator who stood a few feet away from him on the Senate floor. Robert Byrd of West Virginia considers himself the guardian of the Senate's Democratic tradition. And he opposes giving the president alone the power to decide war or peace.

Senator ROBERT BYRD (Democrat, West Virginia): There is no place for a king in our constitutional assessment.

INSKEEP: Lawmakers who hope to limit the power granted to the president are still scrambling to find a strategy. Senate aides say that opponents of the war resolution are still debating what kind of amendments they want to add and when. One counterproposal comes from Senator Carl Levin of Michigan. Under his plan the president would be authorized to go to war, but only if he gained the support of the United Nations Security Council first. Levin argued that it would be impractical to move without the international community.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): If we go it alone, would we be able to secure the use of air bases, ports and supply bases and overflight rights in that region? And those rights and those capabilities are so important to the success of a military operation against Saddam. If we go it alone, would there be a reduction in the broad international support for the war on terrorism, including the law enforcement, financial and intelligence cooperation?

INSKEEP: But today's sharpest discussion was over democratic principles. That's what Senators Byrd and Warner talked about for a good chunk of the afternoon. As Byrd stood nearby, Senator Warner held up his resolution, which would give the president the power to go to war.

Sen. WARNER: Is there any word, is there any sentence, is there any paragraph that exceeds the authority given to the president of the United States in the Constitution which you love and defend so dearly?

Sen. BYRD: Absolutely. This great expenditure of paper is nothing more than a blank check given to the president of the United States to use the forces of this country--the military forces.

INSKEEP: Byrd admitted that presidents have committed troops before without a declaration of war, but he claimed those were mostly minor engagements.

Sen. BYRD: Having to do with cattle rustlers, having to do with pirates, having to do with minor, minor engagements. Oh, yes.

Sen. WARNER: The war in Vietnam did not have a declaration; that was not minor and you know that well.

Sen. BYRD: Well...

Sen. WARNER: Over 50,000 casualties. The war in Korea...

Sen. BYRD: Let's talk about...

Sen. WARNER: which I had a very modest role in the Marine Corps--that was not modest. Over 50,000 casualties.

Sen. BYRD: Let's go back to that war in Vietnam. I was here. I was one of the senators who voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Yes. I voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. I'm sorry for it. I'm guilty of doing that. But I'm not wanting to commit that sin twice.

INSKEEP: The United States Senate did not actually conduct much business today. But a handful of senators did manage to do what the Senate occasionally does best: begin a passionate, public and also polite discussion about the future of the country. At the end of their exchange, Senators Byrd and Warner shook hands and promised to talk again. Steve Inskeep, NPR News, Washington.

Sen. WARNER: Mr. Byrd, I've enjoyed it. Thank you. We'll have more on this floor in the days to come. We will.

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