Can Bush Sell Congress on Iraq?

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Touring country fairs in his home state of Nebraska in August, Senator Chuck Hagel was flabbergasted by what voters were buttonholing him about. Nebraska is one of the most patriotic and pro-Bush Republican states in the Union. There's a saying here that the Cornhuskers are proud of three things: their corn, the University of Nebraska football team and a nuclear-armed Trident ballistic missile submarine the U.S. Navy named after their state. The first questions voters asked Hagel, predictably, was what could be done to protect farmers from the devastating drought attacking their corn. But the second question he kept getting at each stop: Why do we want to invade Iraq? Hagel, a Vietnam veteran who's leery of all the loose war talk he's been hearing in Washington, had no good answer. "Nobody up here thinks Saddam Hussein can be rehabilitated," Hagel says of his colleagues in the Senate who returned to Washington just as nervous as he about the war drumbeat. "That isn't the issue. We want to follow the president. We want to do what's right. But you have to give us some verification here. You can't just generalize and say, 'Well, he's got this stuff that we're not sure of.' You can't do that with members of Congress."

Sen. Pat Roberts, of nearby Kansas, was getting the same earful from voters hit by the drought there. "I just finished up a 31-county listening tour where I made 50 stops," Roberts says. "The number one item of concern was: We're burning up and we need disaster assistance. But the second item of concern was: Are we going to invade Iraq?" Kansans are about as patriotic and Republican as Nebraskans. And Roberts was struck by who was grabbing his lapel. There were the soccer moms worried about sending their sons and daughters to fight, but also military retirees who, Roberts recalls, said "Okay, how the heck are we going to do this?"

Henry Hyde, the conservative Republican chairman of the House International Relations Committee, had the same questions when he returned to Washington. Tipped off that the White House game plan was to press for a war resolution before Congress recessed for the November elections, Hyde was far from enthusiastic. Tom DeLay, the House Republican hawk who had been carrying water for the White House on war with Iraq, saw the political advantage for Republicans backing the president on a national security issue just before hotly contested midterm elections. But graybeards like Hyde worried about the pitfalls. He and many of his more sober-minded colleagues needed to be convinced. By the time he returned to Washington early this week Hyde had already decided to begin hearings the week of September 23 to consider the administration's case.

By last Wednesday, Bush was facing a growing mutiny in his own party to an idea he had yet to formally roll out. Republican senators and congressmen were raising more questions about invasion than Democrats. From moderates like Susan Collins to conservatives like Larry Craig, Republicans started putting on the brakes. Last Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott signaled that White House chatter earlier that Bush could invade without Congress's okay was not going to happen. His administration would have to consult with the Senate and get its approval. In the House, Hyde had decided his hearings wouldn't be a cakewalk. "If it's a weak case, Republicans will object and will advise the president of their concerns, absolutely," Hyde warned in an interview with TIME. "I don't think [a war resolution] is automatic. I think everyone wants to be supportive and they will look for reasons to be supportive."

But Hyde had a number of worries. "I think invading Iraq is a very serious undertaking," he told TIME. "And I'm very concerned about how we get out and whether we will have partners who will share in the burdens of occupying a defeated Iraq as we have had in Kosovo and Afghanistan. There are so many questions. What's the economic impact of drying up Iraqi oil? Will it have to be dried up? Will it be available? What's the impact on the world economy? There are all sorts of problems with this. On the other hand, what are the consequences of doing nothing?"

In the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republicans and Democrats had already begun coalescing around a joint position on Iraq, but they worried it didn't follow Bush's game plan. Both Republicans and Democrats on the committee agreed that Saddam should be gone, but it mattered how you accomplished that. Both sides agreed you couldn't do it on the cheap. It was fine to talk about surgical strikes, but the senators agreed that the Pentagon would likely "have to go in strong with a large force," said a committee aide. They also agreed that Bush must have international support for his adventure along with U.N. approval. "And there has to be a clear vision for post-Iraq," the committee aide says. "What are the plans for the day after?"

The White House game plan was to make the case for invasion of Iraq in September and early October, then get a vote out of Congress approving war before it recessed for the elections. Bush would have that in his pocket so he could launch military strikes perhaps by January when Congress was not in session. But the plan was in danger of already unraveling. Republicans were already heckling him. Congressman Doug Bereuter, a senior Nebraska Republican on the International Relations Committee complained to his hometown Omaha World Herald: "The administration has mishandled [its Iraq policy] "to the point that they have no other option" but war. They got their [military] planning ahead of their diplomacy and education policy." Bush clearly has a lot of educating left to do.