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Rove's Version of 2002 War Vote Is Disputed

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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 1, 2007

Former White House aide Karl Rove said yesterday it was Congress, not President Bush, who wanted to rush a vote on the looming war in Iraq in the fall of 2002, a version of events disputed by leading congressional Democrats and even some former Rove colleagues.

Rove said that the administration did not want lawmakers to vote on a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq that soon because it would "make things move too fast," before Bush could line up international allies, and politicize the issue ahead of midterm elections. But Democrats and some Republicans involved with the issue at the time said yesterday that Bush wanted a quick vote.

The fresh clash over the five-year-old vote made plain how political leaders on all sides are trying to shape the history of that moment. Former president Bill Clinton this week asserted that he flatly opposed the war from the beginning, a contention challenged by a former White House official who briefed him at the time. Some presidential candidates, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), have portrayed themselves as more skeptical than others recalled.

Speaking on PBS's "Charlie Rose" talk show last week, Rove said Congress pushed to have the vote before the election. "The administration was opposed to voting on it in the fall of 2002," Rove said. Asked why, he said: "Because we didn't think it belonged within the confines of the election. There was an election coming up within a matter of weeks. We thought it made it too political. We wanted it outside the confines of it. It seemed to make things move too fast. There were things that needed to be done to bring along allies and potential allies abroad."

Democrats accused him of rewriting history. "Either he has a very faulty memory, or he's not telling the truth," said ex-Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). In an interview, Daschle said he asked Bush during a breakfast to delay the vote until after the election. "They told us time was of the essence and they needed the vote and they were going to move forward," he said.

Steve Elmendorf, chief of staff to then-House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), said it would not benefit Democrats to vote before the elections. "That does not ring true to me," he said of Rove's remarks. "I can't imagine why it would be in our interest to do that."

Rove repeated his assertion in an interview yesterday, pointing to comments made by Democrats in 2002 that they wanted a vote. "For Democrats to suggest they didn't want to vote on it before the election is disingenuous," he said. The vote schedule, he said, was set by lawmakers. "We don't control that."

News accounts and transcripts at the time show Bush arguing against delay. Asked on Sept. 13, 2002, about Democrats who did not want to vote until after the U.N. Security Council acted, Bush said, "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.' "

While some Democrats urged delay, news accounts reported that some party leaders wanted a quick vote to move the issue off the front burner and leave several weeks before the election to focus on pocketbook issues that they felt would be more advantageous. Daschle said Sept. 17 on PBS that he expected a vote "sooner rather than later." Two days later, Bush sent a proposed resolution to Capitol Hill, saying: "We've got to move before the elections."

Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary at the time, said Daschle had pressed Bush over the summer to bring the matter to Congress but for consultation, not necessarily a vote. Bush decided to seek a vote authorizing force, Fleischer said. "It was definitely the Bush administration that set it in motion and determined the timing, not the Congress," he said. "I think Karl in this instance just has his facts wrong."

Former White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. was asked on MSNBC yesterday about Rove's comments but told only that Rove asserted Democrats pushed Bush into war. Card laughed and said that "sometimes his mouth gets ahead of his brain." Card later said that he had not actually seen Rove's interview and was simply reacting to the host's mischaracterization.

After being sent Rove's comments, Card said he did not want to argue with him. He said he recalled much discussion in the White House about whether it was wise to seek a congressional vote before deciding it would demonstrate American unity. But asked if the White House opposed having the vote before the election, he said, "I don't remember that. I don't remember it being done in the context of the election."


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