WASHINGTON — Still reeling from the fallout of authorizing the Iraq war five years ago, Democrats in Congress are determined to put themselves early on record as opposing American military action in Iran.
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In recent days, many Democrats have gone to great lengths to denounce President Bush's strategy on Iran, including his decision to label Tehran's Quds military force as a terrorist group and his statement that a nuclear-armed Iran could lead to "World War III."
Democrats also are jumping on Bush's latest war spending request as proof that the White House is considering airstrikes on Iran's underground uranium enrichment facilities. Bush wants $88 million to continue developing a "bunker-busting" bomb designed to destroy deeply buried targets such as those in Iran.
And in case there were doubts about the Democrats' position, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin introduced legislation Thursday that would require Bush to seek Congress' blessing before taking any military action in Iran.
Anti-war groups eye Iran rift
Standing behind him are liberal anti-war groups, which have expanded their focus on Iraq to include a drumbeat of protests against a potential war with neighboring Iran.
"Every day now, it seems that the confrontational rhetoric between the United States and Iran escalates," said Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
"President Bush needs to understand that the Congress will not be kept out of the loop while his administration plots another march to war," said Byrd.
Regardless of Bush's intentions, denouncing a war before any shots are fired offers political benefits for Democrats. Democrats have proved unable to pass veto-proof legislation that would order troops home from Iraq and are looking for other ways to retain the support of a war-weary public.
Hard-line diplomacy or war-footing?
Bush administration officials say the latest penalties against the Iranian military — the first targeting the armed forces of another country — are part of a diplomatic strategy and not a prelude to war.
"While the president doesn't take any options off the table, we do have economic ways that we can go after this. And we're doing precisely that," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Several leading Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Tom Lantos, say they support the financial punishment. But others, including Byrd, said it seems to portend more aggressive steps.
The White House also has played down its latest spending request to continue development of a bomb that can destroy hardened concrete bunkers and tunnels deep underground.
Included in Bush's $196 billion request for war spending in 2008 is $83.5 million to continue development of a 30,000-pound conventional bomb called the massive ordnance penetrator and $4.2 million to modify the B-2 bomber to carry it. According to White House budget documents, the request is in response to an "urgent operational need from theater commanders."
Democratic Rep. Jim Moran, a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, said outfitting a bomber designed to evade sophisticated enemy detection with such a weapon means the Pentagon has in mind destroying targets in either North Korea and Iran.
"There's no question that there are some within the Bush administration who are pushing for war in Iran," Moran, said in a telephone interview Friday. "And these were the same ones who were pushing for war in Iraq."
Moran said he expects the Democratic leadership will refuse to pay for the research.
For many Democrats, there is no easier way to appeal to anti-war constituents than to challenge unpopular administration officials.
"Whenever Vice President (Dick) Cheney — and this is my opinion — is engaged in foreign policy, it's dangerous," said Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, when asking Rice at a hearing whether the White House was planning to invade Iran.
"We are pursuing a diplomatic course," Rice responded. "The president believes in that. I sit with the vice president. He believes in pursuing this diplomatic course."
Bitten by Iraq
Cheney said last Sunday said that if Iran continued on its current course, the U.S. and other nations were "prepared to impose serious consequences." The vice president, who made no specific reference to military action, said "we will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon."
Taking a proactive stance against a conflict with Iran also is seen as insurance for Democrats against being blamed later for military action gone awry, as was the case with Iraq.
In October 2002, 81 Democrats in the House of Representatives and 29 Senate Democrats joined Republicans in giving Bush authorization to invade Iraq.
Since then, Republicans have argued Democrats cannot shirk blame for the war's mishaps because they, too, agreed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction — an assessment that turned out to be wrong.
Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, who did not join the Senate until 2005, has hammered his presidential race rivals for approving the resolution. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, also a Democrat, has responded with proposed legislation to rescind the 2002 authorization. She also signed on in support of legislation by Democratic Senator Jim Webb that would prohibit money from being used to hit Iran.
Durbin, a Democrat who voted against the 2002 resolution, said he wants a vote on Iran now to avoid any confusion on where Congress stands.
"If they (the administration) think they have some inherent power to launch an invasion of another country such as Iran, they are clearly wrong," Durbin said.
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