Congress Holds its own View of Lebanon Conflict

Earlier this week, both the House and the Senate voted in support of Israel's right to defend itself. But there are questions as to how much latitude Israel should have, and how the U.S. should respond diplomatically.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The fighting in the Middle East has led to some rare shows of bipartisan unity in an otherwise deeply divided U.S. Congress. Earlier this week, the Senate passed by voice-vote a measure expressing support for Israel and affirming that nation's right to self-defense.

Yesterday, the House overwhelmingly approved its own staunchly pro-Israel resolution. Still, not all lawmakers are willing to give Israel, the number one recipient of U.S. foreign aid, a free hand in the conflict.

NPR's David Welna reports from the Capitol.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

The vote for the House resolution vowing steadfast support for the State of Israel was hugely lopsided. Only eight members voted against it, while four more voted present.

Still, what started out a week ago as a measure sponsored by the leaders of both parties ended up with only Majority Leader John Boehner's sponsorship. Boehner told reporters yesterday he could not get Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to remain as a co-sponsor.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; House Majority Leader): We spent five days trying to come to an agreement on language and there was some language that she wanted that we could not agree to.

WELNA: Boehner said he forgot what that language was all about. Pelosi, for her part, said she could not get Republicans to buy into words urging that innocent lives be spared in the conflict.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; House Minority Leader): I believed it was important for us to send a message to the region that said all sides to the conflict should do everything possible to prevent civilian deaths. And that was the language that I thought would be good in there.

WELNA: As the two leaders gave their separate accounts of why the resolution took a week to get approved by the House, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan was calling for an immediate ceasefire before the U.N. Security Council.

Secretary General KOFI ANNAN (Secretary General, United Nations): Both the deliberate targeting by Hezbollah of Israeli population centers with hundreds of indiscriminate weapons and Israel's disproportionate use of force and collective punishment of the Lebanese people must stop.

WELNA: Annan's call for a ceasefire brought a swift rebuttal from the Senate's number two Republican, Kentucky's Mitch McConnell.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): Kofi Annan was wrong. He ought to read the U.N. Resolution 1559, which, in addition to calling on the Syrians to leave Lebanon, which they did, also calls for the Hezbollah to depart as well. And I think that it's unrealistic and inappropriate to call on Israel not to respond to Hezbollah launching missiles into their citizens.

WELNA: Others, though, are urging restraint. At a hearing yesterday on Iran's nuclear ambitions - attended by only three Senators - Delaware Democrat Tom Carper endorsed Annan's call for a ceasefire. Carper said he was heartened by reports that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would go both to the U.N. and to the Middle East.

Senator THOMAS CARPER (Democrat, Delaware): I cannot more urgently stress the need for these visits to happen as soon as possible or the need for the United States to utilize our diplomatic leverage to urge a ceasefire to the fighting that continues to claim innocent lives.

WELNA: But with midterm elections less than four months away, many Democrats take care not to criticize Israel. Instead, they chide President Bush, saying he's neglected the Middle East. Here's Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): The minute President Bush came into office it was hands-off everything. He walked away from what had been accomplished in the situation with the Israelis and the Palestinians.

WELNA: Reid and other Democrats say the Bush administration put all its eggs in one basket by invading and occupying Iraq. They say it's time for a good lengthy debate in Congress not on how to respond to the Middle East, but on how to get out of Iraq.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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