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Analysis: Senate Hearings On Iraq

Weekend Edition Saturday: October 5, 2002

Iraq Hearings

SCOTT SIMON, co-host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): The president of the United States, as I read the Constitution, has the authority at this very moment to employ the men and women of our armed forces in the defense of our nation with...

Senator ROBERT BYRD (Democrat, West Virginia): No, that Constitution doesn't say that.

Sen. WARNER: I believe that's what...

Sen. BYRD: No, no, no, no, no.

Sen. WARNER: I think it's implied that...

Sen. BYRD: Oh, no, no, not about this.

Sen. WARNER: As commander in chief, he can employ them if he feels that an attack has been made on this country or an attack is imminent which he feels that he has to pre-empt. He has the authority to use those forces and we don't have to pass it.

Sen. BYRD: No, wait a minute. The senator's saying two different things.

SIMON: Senator John Warner, Republican of Virginia, and Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, respectfully, disagreed this week over a resolution authorizing US military action in Iraq. Senate debate will continue into next week. NPR's congressional correspondent David Welna joins us.

David, thanks for being with us.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Sure, Scott.

SIMON: After all the calls for public debate, it seemed like, in fact, the debate was really engaged this week, but how meaningful has it been? Will it affect a final tally?

WELNA: Well, we did see that on Wednesday all the top congressional leaders except for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle showed up at the White House for a Rose Garden ceremony with President Bush where they gave their endorsement for a compromised resolution that had been worked out with the White House. And since then, there's been a sense that the resolution's a done deal at Congress. But while that's probably true for the House, in the Senate, there's a real debate under way, as we just heard, and a lot of senators have changes that they'd like to make to the White House resolution which they see as still being too open-ended and doing too little to ensure international support for action against Iraq.

SIMON: So how many votes are we talking about, to get specific about it? Is the difference between 10 or 15 in opposition?

WELNA: A head count for the entire Senate hasn't been done by anybody yet. It's pretty clear, though, that a majority of senators do back the White House resolution, although they may be willing to do some small changes to it.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt signed on with the White House resolution, but as you indicated, the majority leader in the Senate, Tom Daschle, is clearly at odds. Is there a split in the Democratic Party?

WELNA: Well, I think clearly there has been a split. There are Democrats like Gephardt who, even if they may privately have misgivings about carrying out a pre-emptive strike possibly without much support from allies, they don't want to be seen as soft on national defense. Then there are the Democrats who say the president has to be challenged on his drive to dump Saddam Hussein. They say that the evidence just isn't there, that urgent action is needed, especially right before an election where control of Congress is at stake.

SIMON: Senator Byrd reminded his colleagues this week that he, himself, had 38 years ago voted in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that authorized President Lyndon Johnson to send US troops in large numbers into Vietnam.

Sen. BYRD: I'm sorry for it. I'm guilty of doing that. I should have been one of the two--or at least I should have made it three--senators who voted against that Gulf of Tonkin resolution, but I'm not wanting to commit that sin twice, and that's exactly what we're doing here. This is another Gulf of Tonkin resolution, and I'm not going to vote for that this time.

WELNA: Congress went on to repeal that Gulf of Tonkin resolution six years later and thousands of American deaths in Vietnam later. And Byrd is saying that this resolution should be sunsetted, certainly if it passes, and put some limit. And he says that the rest of his colleagues should pay attention to what happened 38 years ago.

SIMON: When do you see the debate ending, David?

WELNA: Well, I'd see the debate ending in the House certainly Wednesday or Thursday of next week. They're going to go to a vote, and because you have the leadership from both parties saying that they back the White House-backed resolution, it's hard to imagine that you would have a full-scale rebellion against Gephardt and that he would only come up with a minority of Democrats in favor of this. In the Senate, it's a little bit more unclear because in the Senate, almost anything can happen and it usually does, but they plan to debate all next week, and they may actually finish by the end of the week.

SIMON: David, thanks very much.

WELNA: You're welcome, Scott.

SIMON: NPR's congressional correspondent David Welna speaking from the Capitol.

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