Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Freshman Sen. James H. Webb Jr. yesterday introduced legislation to force President Bush to seek congressional authorization before using force against Iran.

Democratic leaders, who indicated general support for the Virginia Democrat’s plan last week, are still deciding whether they will attach it to an upcoming spending bill.

“This presidency has shot from the hip too many times for us to be able to trust it to act on its own,” said Mr. Webb, a decorated Vietnam veteran who won a hotly contested Senate race last fall in part because of his opposition to the Iraq war. “We need the Congress to be involved in any decision to commence military activities absent an attack from the other side or a direct threat.”

The backdrop of the discussion is the continuing Capitol Hill debate over the Iraq war. Democrats are still negotiating details of what legislative proposals they will offer to try to block Mr. Bush’s plan to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq.

Mr. Webb’s proposal comes in the form of an amendment to the Bush administration’s $100 billion supplemental war-spending request, which Congress will consider in the coming month.

He said the measure is meant to restore a system of legislative checks on executive power that he thinks Mr. Bush has skirted since Congress approved the Iraq war in October 2002. Though Mr. Webb wants troops to come home from Iraq as soon as possible, he noted Congress’ inability to block funding U.S. forces in that conflict.

“Unlike the current situation in Iraq, where cutting off funds might impede or interrupt ongoing operations, this legislation denies funding that would be necessary to begin such operations against Iran in the first place,” Mr. Webb said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said on Thursday before the bill was drafted that he would be “very, very confident” that he can support Mr. Webb’s plan “in real generalities.”

“The reason we have to look at Iran every day of our legislative lives is there are many out there much smarter than I am who believe that the administration is ramping up to have the same thing happen in Iran that happened in Iraq,” he said, noting intelligence suggesting Iranian involvement with Iraqi insurgents.

A Reid spokesman yesterday said the leader’s position has not changed but declined to say whether the amendment would be attached to the supplemental-spending bill. Democratic leaders in the House are discussing similar language and are generally supportive of Mr. Webb’s efforts, according to a senior aide in that chamber.

Aides for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky did not respond to calls for comment, but House Minority Leader John A. Boehner labeled Mr. Webb’s measure as “a solution in search of a problem.”

“We should continue to work with responsible members of the international community to put pressure on the Iranians to dismantle their nuclear-weapons programs and to halt their support for terrorism,” the Ohio Republican said. “I don’t think it is productive or responsible to place arbitrary restrictions on what is now a hypothetical national security scenario, especially since the language — if not carefully worked — could hamstring our efforts against insurgents and terrorists in Iraq.”

The Webb amendment as drafted outlines that no funds may be “obligated or expended for military operations or activities within or above the territory of Iran, or within the territorial waters of Iran, except pursuant to a specific authorization of Congress.”

Mr. Webb also noted he worked carefully to craft a bill that wouldn’t impede any ongoing tactical missions or intelligence gathering and so it would allow the U.S. to “directly repel an attack” initiated from or about to be launched from Iran. It also includes an exception for when troops are led into Iran in “hot pursuit” of forces outside that country.

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, last week told senators the U.S. is not planning to attack Iran, but Mr. Webb and others worry the 2002 Iraq resolution is viewed by the president as broad authorization for military action against other nations.

Mr. Webb, a former Republican who served in the Reagan administration as Navy secretary, declined to name supporters at this early stage, but he said it should not be a “party” issue, noting a measure sponsored in the House by anti-war Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican.

Mr. Jones said his bill makes it “crystal clear that no previous resolution passed by Congress authorizes such a use of force.”

“If the president is contemplating committing our blood and treasure in another war, then he and his administration must come to Congress and make their case,” Mr. Jones said.

In 1999, Mr. Jones was one of two dozen lawmakers who went to the Supreme Court to block President Clinton’s military action in Yugoslavia, arguing Congress must grant him such authority.

Still, because of potential nuclear capability and the possibility Iran is providing weapons to terrorists in Iraq, Congress “should never underestimate the potential that Iran might act irresponsibly,” Mr. Webb said.

“My hope is we can calm this issue down a bit,” he said. “[A]nd hopefully over a period of time bring Iran into the world community. That should be our goal.”

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