- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 8, 2003

The Senate vote on money mostly for Iraq was a real squeaker. Not in terms of numbers but in the mouselike noise in a nearly empty chamber that affirmed President Bush’s demand for $87.5 billion to run the war and peace and rebuild the loser.

It was the largest request on record for such a purpose. And one would have thought that more than five senators would have shown up to cast the feeble voice affirmation — that is, if one didn’t understand that the upper house of Congress is not a place known for courage.

One also would have thought final approval of this amount of money needed a roll-call vote for history, if nothing else. After all, the House earlier had stood up to be counted, with 121 members actually voting against it.

In the Senate, however, one lone dissenter, the august Robert Byrd of West Virginia, had the temerity to shout “No” when the call to vote came from the presiding officer of the moment, Sen. Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island.

“The ayes appear to have it,” Mr. Chaffee said. “The ayes do have it.” What a hoot.

Mr. Byrd’s detractors will point out that he is such an unassailable political icon in his state he can do nearly anything he wishes without fear of reprisal at the polls. Besides, he has been the most consistent of those in his party, vigorously opposing the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq at every stage and suggesting that approval of the bill may be a “Pyrrhic victory” for the administration.

What this lame demonstration of support reflects, of course, is that more and more senators are becoming skittish about the political ramifications of this war and its cost both in human and economic terms. Having their names listed in the affirmative or, for that matter, negative column frightens them with visions of retribution in the voting booth. Of the few who were willing to leave their hiding places in the cloakroom, their Capitol hideaways or their offices, only the feisty Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, made it clear he had no such qualms. In reality, he, like Mr. Byrd, is untouchable at home.

The timing of the vote, only a relatively few hours after Iraqi insurgents, terrorists or whatever they can be called shot down a helicopter full of U.S. military personnel at a substantial loss of lives, didn’t help the senators overcome their concern about what might happen if this thing doesn’t end before next November, when a number of them will be up for re-election.

Polls disclose that while most Americans still support the war, they have been particularly critical of the price tag. The $87.5 billion request, according to pollsters, brought on widespread angst and a lowering of the president’s approval rating. There was considerable support for making half of the $18.6 billion earmarked for Iraqi reconstruction a loan. But the president threatened to veto the bill and ultimately won out, making it a statement on whether lawmakers would deny American troops the resources needed. Certainly, no one wanted that on his record.

So while, from a political standpoint, there could be good reason for all the trepidation on the part of an overwhelming majority of senators, one is certainly justified in asking whether standing up to be counted and not shirking responsibility sometimes isn’t more important than political considerations. Shouldn’t these failures become as much a liability as which direction is taken? What good is taking a stance if you do so in secret? There is some safety in numbers, and there was little chance the bill wouldn’t be passed overwhelmingly.

The truth is that most senators, on both sides of the aisle, have become schizophrenic over this war. Some of those who are leading critics voted to authorize it and now find themselves justifying support for the money to finance it as necessary to protect U.S. forces.

Mr. Bush’s Democratic opponents face a severe credibility problem here. In the end, it won’t matter how the bill was passed, just that it was approved and the funds made available. But it was a shabby spectacle and a lot of voters probably should ask themselves whether someone who didn’t have the courage to show up for the finale is someone worthy of holding office.

A roll call would have been a far better procedure, even if it were perfunctory and confirmed what all of us know. Until there is some stability in Iraq, there is no way the nation can leave.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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