Democratic senators face trouble this week trying to cleanse themselves of the stain of voting for President Bush's Iraq war resolution. Republican senators who have turned against the U.S. military intervention in Iraq are not interested in bailing out Democrats by approving their proposal to repeal the authorization overwhelmingly passed by Congress in 2002.
As Congress returns this week from the year's first recess, an amendment to repeal authorization is supposed to be attached to the bill containing homeland security recommendations by the Sept. 11 commission. But Sen. Norm Coleman, who has become prominent among Republican critics of Bush's war policy, told me from his home state of Minnesota that he would oppose deauthorization and predicted that no more than two Republican senators would vote for it.
One of those two Republican senators would have to be Nebraska's Chuck Hagel, who has fearlessly critiqued Bush's war policy. But Hagel told me that he is not inclined to support a repeal. If Hagel is lost, Democrats might fall short of the 50 votes necessary for final passage, much less the 60 necessary to close off debate. George W. Bush may be an unpopular president fighting an unpopular war, but Democrats are finding it hard to make war policy from Capitol Hill.
Democrats do not cloak the political nature of their efforts. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, participating in a Nevada forum for Democratic presidential candidates last week, exultantly announced to applause his intent to "revoke the president's authority that he was given . . . to go to war." The mantra is not limited to the presidential hopefuls from the Senate. On the campaign trail in New Hampshire, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico also called for de-authorization.
The de-authorization effort follows a series of frustrations for Democrats. Biden, having regained the Foreign Relations chairmanship after the 2006 elections, pushed a harshly worded, though nonbinding, antiwar resolution that went nowhere. A milder bipartisan measure fell short of the votes needed for cloture. Democratic backing for a plan to place conditions on the funding for Bush's surge of troops dropped off when its sponsor, Rep. John Murtha, bragged that troops in the field "won't have the equipment" under his plan.
As Congress began its break, Biden and Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, looked to events 37 years ago. A 1964 resolution (passed with only two dissenting votes in the Senate) gave President Lyndon B. Johnson his requested free hand in Vietnam because of a trumped-up attack on a U.S. naval vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin. It was repealed in 1970 as an amendment to a noncontroversial bill.
But as is true with most Iraq-Vietnam analogies, de-authorization of the Tonkin Gulf resolution bears little resemblance to what is being contemplated today. President Richard M. Nixon began pulling combat troops out of Vietnam soon after he took office in 1969, and he offered no objection to repeal of the LBJ resolution. It passed the Senate 81 to 10, with unanimous support from Republicans.
In contrast, the proposed 2007 de-authorization looks like a Democratic effort to escape the wrath of the antiwar party faithful. Of the 29 Democrats who voted for the 2002 war resolution over four years ago, 21 are still in the Senate, seven are up for reelection next year and three -- Biden, Christopher Dodd and Hillary Clinton -- are running for president.
After checking with antiwar Republicans on recess last week, I found that several who had favored a nonbinding resolution rejecting Bush's policy are loath to give Democrats a get-out-of-jail-free card on Iraq. An exception was Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, who indicated he might favor de-authorization but would never vote to cut off funds. However, Coleman told me: "I don't see us going back and rewriting history." Similarly, Hagel said: "We are not going back and rewind every decision we made."
Hagel's position is critical. Before the recess, Biden and Levin sought support from the conservative who had been one of only two Republicans to back their tough nonbinding resolution. Hagel has long been appalled by Bush's war policy, but he is rightly suspicious of Democratic ploys that would have no impact on dire conditions in Iraq.