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Senate, House Vote to Allow Use of Military Force In Iraq

By Janet Hook and Nick Anderson

A measure to authorize the use of military force against Iraq won final congressional approval early Friday, giving President Bush a strong bipartisan mandate and broad power to challenge an adversary who has bedeviled the United States for more than a decade.

Ending a somber debate that pushed past midnight, the Senate voted 77-23 for the resolution. The action came hours after the House gave its approval on a 296-133 vote.

The votes gave Bush a decisive victory as he attempts to build international support for a concerted effort to disarm Iraqi President Saddam Hussein of his regime’s suspected weapons of mass destruction. It was the second time in his presidency that Bush has won congressional authorization to use force, a development that could lead to a major new phase of military action for a nation already at war against terror.

In a statement after the House vote, Bush said: “The House of Representatives has spoken clearly to the world and to the United Nations Security Council.”

“The gathering threat of Iraq must be confronted fully and finally,” he said.

If diplomacy fails, the congressional resolution clears the way for Bush to launch a military strike in one of the most volatile regions of the world. The measure is a foreign policy milestone that could mark the beginning of a long, potentially costly U.S. commitment in the Middle East.

With that in mind, many lawmakers expressed the hope that the resolution will make it less likely that force will actually need to be used.

“I strongly believe that our diplomacy will achieve its purpose only if the Iraqi regime knows that a sword of Damocles hangs over its head,” said Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) on Thursday.

But opponents warned that, by allowing Bush to launch a unilateral first strike if he chooses, the resolution represents a troubling shift away from long-standing U.S. strategy of eschewing preemptive attacks.

The resolution gives Bush the power to use any means he determines necessary and appropriate--including military force--to respond to the perceived threat posed by Iraq.

Bush has said repeatedly that he has not decided whether to resort to war. If he does, the resolution requires Bush to certify to Congress, within 48 hours after the launch of a military strike, that diplomatic avenues had proved fruitless and that an attack was “consistent” with ongoing efforts to fight terrorism.

In the Senate, key lawmakers who voted for the resolution included Majority Leader Tom Daschle, (D-S.D.), and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). [Massachusetts’ delegation was split, with John Kerry (D-Mass.) voting for and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) voting against the resolution.]

The Senate debate stretched deep into the night as senators rose, one after another, to go on the record in one of the most significant votes of the past dozen years. Shortly before midnight, for instance, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) declared that the time had come to face down Saddam.

“The longer we wait, the stronger he becomes and the harder he will be to defeat,” Ensign said.

But Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, blasted the resolution as “too timid,” arguing that Congress should have broadened the resolution to give Bush even greater authority to attack international terrorists.