What the 2002 use of force resolution against Iraq can tell us about Syria vote

September 1, 2013
President Obama has called for a congressional vote on the use of force against Syria. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
President Obama has called for a congressional vote on the use of force against Syria. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

As Congress embarks on a debate over whether to launch a strike against Syria in retaliation for a recent chemical attack against civilians, it's worth looking at the most recent vote for the authorization of force -- against Iraq in 2002.

Questions on whether to use force often divide parties regardless of which one holds the White House, but the 2002 was easy compared to the vote lawmakers will face later this month.

When President George W. Bush asked Congress to go to war against Iraq in the fall of 2002, the resolution was introduced by leaders of both parties in each chamber: then-Sens. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Reps. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), respectively.

The measure passed the House 296 to 133 and the Senate 77 to 23; in both cases Democrats accounted for the bulk of the opposition.

In the House, 127 of 209 Democrats, or nearly 61 percent, backed the resolution. By contrast 217 of 223 Republicans, or more than 94 percent, voted aye. The six Republicans who opposed it included three moderates—Amo Houghton (N.Y.), Jim Leach (Iowa) and Connie Morella (Md.)—as well as conservative Reps. John Duncan (Tenn.) and John Hostettler (Ind.) and libertarian Ron Paul (Tex.). The one independent in the House, Bernie Sanders (Vt.), voted no.

The partisan breakdown in the Senate largely mirrored that of the House: 29 out of 50 Democrats, or 58 percent, voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, while just one Republican senator, Lincoln Chaffee (R.I.) opposed it. Of the Democratic senators who voted in opposition, nine of them are still in office: Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), Carl Levin (Mich.), Barbara Milkulski (Md.), Patty Murray (Wash,), Jack Reed (R.I.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.).

How will lawmakers vote this time, now that a Democratic president is asking for authorization to launch what Barack Obama describes as a "limited" military strike? Obama and Vice President Biden are both well aware of the risk they are taking. In 1999 when President Clinton asked for a resolution backing his plans to conduct airstrikes against the Federated Government of Yugoslavia over the crisis in Kosovo, Biden introduced the resolution and the Senate approved it 58 to 41 on March 23, with 38 Republicans and three Democrats voting against it. While the House has passed a broadly-worded resolution favoring the administration's efforts to end the violence in Kosovo, the measure backing airstrikes failed in the House on April 28 on a tie vote of 213 to 213.

At the time, Daschle attributed the House vote to the fact that many Republicans disliked Clinton, and the idea of intervening in Kosovo did not enjoy tremendous popular support. ""I hope we don't just look at the polls every time we make a decision about foreign policy," Daschle said.

Clinton conducted the airstrikes anyway, with the support of NATO but without the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. This time, Obama hopes that the endorsement of Congress will give him the support he needs to embark on a foreign policy venture fraught with political risk.

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