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This Time, Politics Beyond the Water's Edge

Lott "I cannot support this military action in the Persian Gulf at this time," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said Wednesday. (AP file photo)

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  • By Helen Dewar and Eric Pianin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, December 17, 1998; Page A1

    The unwritten rule that politics stops at the water's edge was rudely shattered yesterday, as many congressional Republicans who have long distrusted and reviled President Clinton sharply criticized his motivations in bombing Iraq on the eve of a House vote on impeachment.

    Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) declared that he could not support Clinton's decision and joined many House Republicans in questioning whether the attack might be a desperate effort to frustrate the impeachment action.

    "Both the timing and the policy are open to question," Lott asserted shortly before the bombing began.

    Democrats reacted angrily to Lott's comments, and some key Senate Republicans and outgoing House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said they supported the military action. Meanwhile, incoming House Speaker Bob Livingston (R-La.), while agreeing that Clinton has lost credibility, tried to paper over any partisan differences, telling reporters "we now have to support our troops now that they're deployed."

    Administration officials vigorously defended their motives in launching the attack. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said, "I am prepared to place 30 years of public service on the line" to say there was no ulterior motive. Secretary of State Madeline K. Albright said she was particularly upset that "somehow the rules that have existed for many years about criticizing the president when he's abroad seem to have been broken."

    "I found that very unseemly and unbecoming to members of Congress," Albright said.

    Still, Lott's comments seemed to accurately reflect the feeling among many congressional Republicans that Clinton can no longer be trusted and is capable of doing anything to hang on to his office.

    It is a long-standing congressional tradition of leadership to support military operations once they begin. But this time -- to the dismay of the administration and Democratic leaders -- Clinton's decision to launch bombing strikes on Iraq was greeted with an unusual outpouring of cynicism and vitriol from Republican members, even some who have urged tougher U.S. action against Iraq in recent months.

    Some House members said bluntly they thought Clinton was taking the country to war to help him fend off impeachment.

    "Never underestimate a desperate president," said a furious House Rules Committee Chairman Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.). "What option is left for getting impeachment off the front page and maybe even postponed? And how else to explain the sudden appearance of a backbone that has been invisible up to now?"

    House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), was even tougher. "The suspicion some people have about the president's motives in this attack is itself a powerful argument for impeachment," he said. "After months of lies, the president has given millions of people around the world reason to doubt that he has sent Americans into battle for the right reasons."

    Livingston emerged from a late evening GOP conference to announce that the House would temporarily postpone action on impeachment and would meet in the morning to approve a resolution of support for military personnel. However, it was clear that many of his troops lined up behind him with reluctance. "If the president is audacious enough to start a war to stop this [impeachment] we will probably have to deal with it," said Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), the chief deputy majority whip.

    House Republicans who returned to Washington yesterday in anticipation of the impeachment showdown were sharply divided last night over whether to support the bombing mission and postpone impeachment action, according to several members. Dozens of people spoke at a meeting of the House GOP Conference, including many offering tough assessments of the president's motives. In the end, however, the majority agreed with Livingston to back the bombing publicly and postpone the impeachment vote.

    "It was a very reasoned, thoughtful debate," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.). "There were folks virtually on every side of the issue and in the end we came together."

    Congressional Democrats, who for days have been on the defensive because of the tidal wave of GOP support for impeachment, lashed back last night, calling the Republicans' charges ill-considered and saying they might jeopardize the nation's security.

    Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) said lawmakers who raise doubt about Clinton's motivation are inviting further defiance by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. He called their remarks "as close to a betrayal of the interests of the United States as I've ever witnessed in the United States Congress. It's unforgivable and reprehensible."

    Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) said in an interview with CNN that the airstrikes were precisely the course of action many members of Congress, including Republicans, had been urging. "I must say I was disappointed by Sen. Lott's statement," he said.

    Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) closed ranks behind the president and said the military action warranted a postponement of the impeachment proceedings. "Saddam Hussein should make no mistake that despite domestic political differences in the United States, the American people and Congress stand firmly behind the defense of our nation's vital interests," they said.

    Gephardt brushed aside questions about the timing of the U.S. attack. "The facts are the facts," he said about Iraq's violation of the weapons inspection agreement. "The president's decision would have been questioned no matter what it was. He did in my view the right thing for America and for our security interests."

    In the most dramatic display of GOP defiance, Lott sharply criticized the administration's entire policy toward Iraq while leaving little doubt he believes the bombing order was designed to sidetrack the mounting impeachment drive.

    "While I have been assured by administration officials that there is no connection with the impeachment process in the House of Representatives, I cannot support this military action in the Persian Gulf at this time," Lott said in a one-page statement issued by his Senate office.

    Livingston declined to join Lott and others in challenging the president's motives, but he did raise questions about the timing. This was the third time this year that questions have been raised about the juxtaposition of possible or actual U.S. attacks and critical junctures in Clinton's sex and perjury scandal.

    "The fact is that we have had either hostilities or threatened hostilities at interesting times throughout the last year," Livingston said in an interview prior to the initial reports of the bombing.

    While Lott has long been a critic of the administration's handling of national security policy -- particularly toward Iraq -- his declaration of opposition to a military initiative just as it was being launched is rare for a Senate leader. Lott's predecessor, Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), often criticized Clinton's defense and foreign policies but rallied behind the president once it became clear the administration was preparing a military operation, as he did in the case of Bosnia several years ago.

    Earlier this year, Lott pushed for a resolution to support airstrikes against Iraq but also warned that the administration needed an "end game" for the region. He also spearheaded passage of legislation providing nearly $100 million in aid to resistance forces in Iraq, and it was signed by Clinton.

    But a leadership aide said he does not believe Lott has ever before challenged military action as it was being launched.

    Lott, who was in Mississippi yesterday, drafted the statement after a conference call with most other members of the Senate GOP leadership, the aide said. Both he and Livingston were briefed over the last few days by administration officials and spoke with Clinton yesterday morning about the plans for Iraq.

    But it quickly became clear that he was not reflecting the views of all Senate Republicans. Chairmen Jesse Helms (N.C.) of the Foreign Relations Committee, John W. Warner (Va.) of the Armed Services Committee and Richard C. Shelby (Ala.) of the Intelligence Committee endorsed the military strikes, while offering varying degrees of criticism of previous administration policy. Warner said impeachment-related "questions of timing are serious and legitimate" but should be addressed at a different time.

    "Should the military operation ordered by the administration in this instance occur at the level and intensity required to seriously degrade Iraq's military capabilities while weakening Saddam's hold on power, then it will have my full support," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. But McCain agreed it is "destined to fail" if the administration once again lets "Saddam . . . call our bluff."

    "We have to go forward with military action; we just can't be a paper tiger," said Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), a former secretary of the Navy. Chafee also derided suggestions that the airstrikes were politically motivated. "That's a very unfair charge," he said. "The president has been terribly patient, but enough's enough."

    In his statement, Lott accused the administration of having "squandered too many opportunities in Iraq." He said he would support "serious and sustained action" aimed at removing Saddam Hussein from power and destroying his ability to produce and deliver weapons of mass destruction. But he said he did not believe these goals could be achieved by a "cursory airstrike."

    While saying "all Americans will fully support our troops in battle," Lott said he had to oppose "action that does not accomplish our larger, strategic goal" and operations that endanger American lives to achieve objectives "that will not effect real change in that nation."

    Staff writers Ceci Connolly and Eric L. Wee contributed to this article.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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