Dems united on Iraq bill, but divided on Iran

As the House is set to proceed on a resolution addressing the war in Iraq, a potential divide is surfacing over Democratic bills regarding Iran.

Democrats may not stand united behind a series of bills that speak out against a military attack on Iran, concerned that such bills would make the party prone to attacks regarding foreign policy, according to a senior House staffer. In spite of the party’s overwhelming unity behind similar resolutions regarding Iraq, it seems clear that the party’s next challenge will be to craft a position on Iran that is distinct from the White House’s and also insulates it from criticism of being weak in the global arena.

The potential divide also indicates that not all Democrats are convinced that the party has seized control of the national security issue, in spite of their electoral triumphs in November, which were largely due to the unpopularity of the Iraq war.

Within the first month of the new legislative session, Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Walter Jones (R-N.C.), and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) have introduced bills in the House condemning the prospect of a preemptive strike against Iran and calling for congressional authorization before military action can be taken. The measures also affirmatively reject the notion that the authorization to use force against Afghanistan after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, would also authorize an attack on Iran.

The senior House staffer, who is involved in foreign policy matters, stated that Republicans may try to use any legislation by Democrats concerning the potential use of force against Iran to portray the party as weak on terrorism and foreign policy, and that this could have a profound effect on denying Democrats the White House in 2008. The source went on to say that Democrats still cannot afford to take steps that open the party to criticisms of being weak on these matters.

DeFazio contended that a future attack on Iran would only solidify political support for the Iranian government and intensify its desire for nuclear-weapons capability, stating, “If Republicans want to defend going into Iran … have at it.” He added that the prospect of a military attack on Iran is also a fear for the military community, citing a recent presentation by a retired major general that was delivered during the Democratic National Committee’s winter meeting last week. According to DeFazio, the former officer said that there is “a substantial fear within the military community that the Bush administration” was seriously considering an attack on Iran. DeFazio noted that many lawmakers signed on to his resolution after the presentation.

Another House source added that congressional backing for the use of force against Afghanistan after Sept. 11 resulted in an overly broad instrument that has since been used by the White House for a variety of actions, including the detention of suspects without any formal process and incidences of extraordinary rendition.

The DeFazio resolution states, “That Congress … strongly and unequivocally believes that seeking congressional authority prior to taking military action against Iran is not discretionary, but is a legal requirement.” The Lee legislation, while intended to prohibit the use of funds for covert military action against Iran, offers a statement of policy that, “It is the policy of the United States not to enter into a preemptive war against Iran in the absence of an imminent threat, and then only in accordance with international law and constitutional and statutory requirements for congressional authorization.”

The resolution offered by Jones states that the president shall consult and receive authorization from Congress in the absence of an attack or demonstrable imminent strike by Iran. Even though it’s a Republican bill, the vast majority of cosponsors are Democrats, including DeFazio, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) and Rep. John Murtha (Pa.).

Stacey Bernard, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), said that his office has not addressed the Iran resolutions yet and has focused entirely on Iraq as the House is set to address a non-binding resolution next week.

The Washington Post reported earlier this week that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has told her Democratic colleagues that if it appears likely that Bush wants to take the country to war against Iran, the House would take up a bill to deny him the authority to do so.

In spite of the potential divide regarding the Iran bills, Democrats seemingly share common ground on their view of the administration and the call for diplomacy. Lynne Weil, spokeswoman for House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), noted that during two committee hearings held within the past week, including a budgetary hearing with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Democrats had repeatedly expressed criticism about the administration’s policy toward Iran while emphasizing that every diplomatic option needed to be explored. 

Democrats have diverged on Iran in the past, though to a lesser extent, when Congress was looking to pass sanctions legislation last session. Several Democrats voted against an earlier version of the Iran Freedom and Support Act, a bill that was introduced by now-ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), though it had acquired a large amount of Democratic support, stating that the sanctions legislation would lead to an escalation with the country.

Recent events have served to increase the tension between the two nations. The International Atomic Energy Agency stated that Iran has set up two cascades, consisting of over 300 nuclear centrifuges, in order to enrich uranium for a program the Iranian government has consistently stated is for peaceful, civilian purposes, while the U.S. has contended that Iran intends on creating a nuclear-weapons program. Additionally, the White House recently authorized American troops to take all necessary steps, including fatal force, to stop Iranian agents aiding Shiite militants in Iraq.

Asked about why he introduced his Iran resolution, Jones said that the matter presented a constitutional issue: “I want the Congress to meet its responsibility,” he said, adding that the neoconservatives who pushed for the Iraq war still wield influence. In discussing potential future criticism from his fellow GOP colleagues, Jones stated, “If they don’t believe in the Constitution … then I feel sorry for them.”