How deal was won Courtship of lawmakers converts key holdouts
By Kathy Kiely and Judy Keen
WASHINGTON -- The strong House and Senate support of President Bush's armed ultimatum to Iraq is being billed as a bipartisan show of solidarity in the interest of national security.
It also represents a triumph of deft political maneuvering for a president who, as recently as August, was being publicly scolded for his impetuousness by senior members of his own party and for a White House that, in August, was shrugging off the need for congressional authorization to move against Iraq.
Congress' summer of discontent with Bush's Iraq policy was followed by a whirlwind autumn courtship. An all-out lobbying campaign by the administration, with intimate meetings between the president and small groups of fence-sitting lawmakers and top-secret briefings in the White House Situation Room, got underway when Congress reconvened after Labor Day.
The effort was prompted in large part by White House alarm over polls that showed Americans wanted their elected representatives to have a say in any decision to go to war. And with fall elections looming and control of the House of Representatives and Senate in the balance, Bush's advisers were aware of the benefits that might come from a campaign season dominated by talk of national security, an issue on which voters traditionally give the edge to the GOP.
Bush's wooing of Congress culminated last week. In one frenetic 24-hour period of behind-the-scenes dealmaking, the president managed to:
* Lock in the support of key Democratic leaders, including House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, his party's vice-presidential candidate in 2000.
* Begin reeling back in a key defector from his own party, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, in part by promising to support arms-control programs that are important to him.
* Stage a Rose Garden ceremony that showcased the bipartisan backing for his Iraq use-of-force resolution and gave it such an air of inevitability that all but the most hard-core opposition collapsed.
The movement began late Sept. 30, when White House officials, who had been trying to draft a compromise resolution that all four top congressional leaders could endorse, decided there was no hope of winning over Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. They came to that conclusion partly because of an angry outburst by Daschle a week earlier, when he accused Bush of impugning the patriotism of Democrats, and partly because of Daschle's support for an alternative resolution by Lugar and Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del.
The next morning, Lugar, one of his party's most influential foreign policy leaders, was invited to the White House for a long talk with Secretary of State Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. ''They heard me out,'' Lugar said. Meanwhile, Bush got on the phone to Gephardt. ''He said he hoped we could get an agreement,'' Gephardt said. That afternoon, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales paid a call on Lugar. White House staffers opened private talks with Gephardt aides. In the early evening, they alerted Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., a deal was close.
Lott called Lieberman, a vocal opponent of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, to nail down his support for a new version of the resolution. Meanwhile, the talks between Bush aides and Gephardt aides went on. About 11 p.m., Gephardt got a call from an aide who told him, ''I think we have a deal.''
It was sealed the next morning, Oct. 2, at Bush's weekly breakfast with congressional leaders. Gephardt announced the news to reporters waiting in the White House driveway. Daschle said he would still support the Biden-Lugar alternative. But back on Capitol Hill, Daschle canceled a planned news briefing, and Biden scrubbed a committee meeting in which he had hoped to win a vote of support for his alternative. White House aides and Lott began issuing hasty invitations to key Republicans and Democrats for an afternoon Rose Garden ceremony.
At 1 p.m., when Bush appeared before the cameras to announce the deal, he was flanked by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Gephardt, Lieberman and Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., junior senator to Lugar. Afterward, Bush phoned Lugar. He asked for his support and promised to help with Lugar's arms-control projects. ''I took advantage of the leverage I had,'' Lugar said later.
By later that day, Lugar was edging back to the Bush fold, and Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., was complaining that he could no longer stop ''this monstrosity'' because of fellow Democrats who had ''succumbed to the blandishments of the White House.''