House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) had just delivered to George Bush the greatest legislative victory yet of his presidency, but late yesterday afternoon Michel said he felt no jubilation.
"I feel so emotionally drained," said Michel, the product of a midwestern pacifist church who enlisted in the Army shortly after the outbreak of World War II and was wounded in Europe. "This is not the end. It may be just the beginning."
After three days of debate filled with emotion but short on enthusiasm, after hundreds of speeches that rang with more torment and anguish than fervor, the House and Senate voted yesterday to give Bush the authority he sought to wage war if he chooses in order to drive Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.
"This is a most important debate," Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) said yesterday. "It is the most important of our careers."
With grave solemnity and with a minimum of partisan rancor, the lawmakers cast their votes, the result of 532 individual and, in many cases, intensely personal decisions and soul-searching.
There was little bravado, flag-waving or chest-thumping. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) may have captured the mood best as he closed the debate with a rare floor speech.
"Let me offer a public prayer for this House, for all of us, for the Congress, for our president -- and he is our president -- and for the American people, in particular those young Americans who stand ready to make the supreme sacrifice," he told a packed, hushed House chamber. "May God bless us and guide us and help us in fateful days that lie ahead."
Across the chamber, Michel dabbed tears from his eyes.
"In 35 years of legislating, no vote has affected me more emotionally," the House GOP leader said later. "There can't be anything more profound," he said.
The House debate, the longest in the chamber's modern history, was extended three times and eventually stretched over more than 24 hours. The House session that began at 9:05 a.m. Friday did not end until 19 hours and 223 speeches later.
"It has been a debate that has been marked by the utmost seriousness," Foley said earlier. "There was obviously great emotion on both sides, but in 26 years in the House of Representatives, I have never seen this House more serious nor more determined to speak its heart and mind on a question than they are at this time on this day."
In the Senate, so many lawmakers wanted to speak Friday that they remained in session for more than 18 hours. They recessed at 2:40 a.m. yesterday, only to return just five hours and 20 minutes later.
In the closing moments of yesterday's House and Senate debates, the chambers were packed with lawmakers. Usually, the full House has the gentle rumble of a busy airport waiting room. But yesterday, it was unusually still and somber, almost funereal.
Shortly before each of yesterday's Senate votes, nearly 90 lawmakers were at their desks, where normally only a handful are present.
The drama was played out before galleries filled with tourists, congressional aides and lawmakers' families. Senators' aides jammed the red-cushioned benches in the rear of the chamber. In the House, staff and pages lined the brass railing that rings the floor.
For the general public, the wait for a seat was as long as 2 1/2 hours. Lines of tourists stretched from the ground floor to the third and then snaked around the corridors surrounding the chambers. Tight security ringed the building.
"It's history in the making," said Andrew Stull, a 25-year-old financial analyst from Bethesda.
War and peace are among the greatest public questions that lawmakers must face. But many found the decision profoundly personal.
Early yesterday morning, two men, unable to sleep, rattled around in the predawn gloom of the Capitol Hill townhouse they share. "Worried about your vote?" Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.) recalled his friend and housemate, Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), asking him.
"I was comfortable with my vote," said Panetta, who opposed giving Bush authorization to wage war. "But I was thinking: Today we may unleash the dogs of war. I never thought in my career I'd face this kind of decision."
Panetta is the father of three young men ranging in age from 21 to 26. The eldest is applying to law school after serving in the Peace Corps; the middle son is finishing medical school and the youngest is a senior at the University of California at Davis.
Was he thinking about them during this debate? he was asked. His voice filled with emotion, his eyes glistened. "It's like a shadow," he said, "a very dark shadow coming over all of the hopes you've had for them, their careers, their future."