The failure of Secretary of State James A. Baker III's diplomatic mission in Geneva created a crisis atmosphere among members of Congress on Wednesday, causing many Democrats to temper their criticism of President Bush's Persian Gulf policy.
As gloom settled over the Capitol, many leading Democrats declared their intention to support the president's request for permission to go to war against Iraq - the first congressional authorization of U.S. military action in more than a quarter century.In addition, the president's supporters said the outcome of Baker's meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz has increased the prospects that both the House and Senate will vote decisively in favor of a resolution sought by Bush.
``The fact that (Saddam) Hussein has been absolutely unwilling to negotiate, it might change some minds,' said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who plans to support Bush. ``The fact that Saddam Hussein has completely ignored reality is going to affect the debate. My prediction would be that a majority of members will support the president.'
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Even opponents of the president's hard-line policy against Iraq acknowledged that the mood was changing on Capitol Hill. ``They will rally around the president at this time of crisis,' said Rep. Charles Bennett, D-Fla., who said that he plans to argue against Bush's request.
Both the House and Senate are expected to begin debate Thursday on the president's Persian Gulf policy. The House is expected to vote Saturday; the Senate will vote early next week.
Democratic leaders said they still planned to offer an alternative resolution that would not permit Bush to attack Iraq immediately. But House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, indicated that they would bring no pressure to bear on Democrats to support the party position and vote against the president.
Foley described it as an issue of ``conscience as well as judgment.'
While many members of Congress expressed hope that a strong vote in favor of the president's request would persuade Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, there was, nevertheless, a growing feeling among them that war may now be inevitable.
``I think it's looked like war for some time,' said Rep. Dante Fascell, D-Fla., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Added Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas: ``The outlook for an agreement on some kind of settlement before Jan. 15 is bleak.'
A poll conducted Friday through Monday when hopes were still pinned on talks in Geneva found most Americans see war with Iraq as justified but half are not ready to attack if Saddam fails to get out of Kuwait by the Jan. 15 deadline.
Some members of Congress were meeting with the president at the White House when Baker called him at the conclusion of his meeting with Aziz. When the president returned to the meeting room after taking the call, Murtha said, he stunned the lawmakers by reporting that Aziz had ``stiff-armed' Baker.
It was at that moment that the members of Congress in the room were fully persuaded of the president's determination to follow through on his threat to intervene militarily if Iraq fails to withdraw from Kuwait.
Murtha is one of a small cadre of prominent House Democrats - including Fascell and Rep. Stephen Solarz, D-N.Y. - who have been working with the president's aides to draft a resolution expected to garner the support of many House Democrats as well as Republicans.
Unlike the measure to be offered by the House Democratic leadership, the administration-backed resolution would not require a return to Congress for additional approval before going to war with Iraq.