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Congressional Debate Heats As Bush Pushes Iraq Matter

By Nick Anderson

and Edwin Chen

Faced with the growing likelihood of a major vote this fall on Iraq, members of Congress on Thursday raised a host of pointed questions they say President Bush must answer if he seeks their approval for sending U.S. troops to topple Saddam Hussein.

Bush, meanwhile, reiterated in strong terms that he is resolved to move against the Iraqi president, even as the administration’s precise plan for doing so remains unclear.

“I meant it when I said I’m going to consult with Congress,” Bush said at a political fundraiser in Louisville, Ky., a day after announcing he would seek congressional approval before taking action.

“One thing is for certain: I’m not going to change my view,” he added. “And my view is, we cannot let the world’s worst leaders blackmail America, threaten America or hurt America with the world’s worst weapons.”

The debate over Iraq could dominate the next few weeks of this year’s congressional session and, possibly, influence some critical contests in the Nov. 5 midterm elections.

On a number of fronts Thursday on Capitol Hill and on the congressional campaign trail, there were signs of the intensifying debate:

A spokesman for the House International Relations Committee said the panel would quiz Bush administration officials closely on Iraq in classified briefings and public hearings starting in the middle of this month.

Eighteen liberal House Democrats and one independent sent Bush a letter with sharp questions about a potential military strike against Iraq, laying the groundwork for antiwar arguments should the president decide on a full-fledged invasion.

Several Senate candidates, Democrats and Republicans alike, announced they would support Bush or were leaning toward backing a bid for congressional approval of action against Hussein. Some Democrats, however, remained skeptical or noncommittal.

Senators from both parties took to the floor to raise questions that outlined the evolving debate and the growing chorus for more details on the threat that the administration says is posed by Hussein.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) wondered when the administration would demonstrate that Hussein has, or is close to having, nuclear weapons. “Where is the evidence?” he asked. “We have a duty to ask questions because we are living in a very perilous time, and the war drums are beating all around us.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said a strike at Iraq could complicate efforts to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and set back the United States’ declared war on al-Qaida and other terror networks. She added that launching a major invasion of another nation “leads to the questions of whether a preemptive war is morally right, legally right, or politically the right way for the United States to proceed.”

Other senators who support the president, such as Democrat Zell Miller of Georgia, said Bush must still convince the public. “I don’t think the president has made the case with the folks back home,” Miller said. “He can, and I think he will, but he hasn’t yet.”

Bush sought Thursday to build support. He declared in four speeches his conviction that the United States must force a “regime change” in Baghdad.