Congress and Presidents: Often Uneasy Allies in War ; Congress Rallies around Commander in Chief as Military Action Opens, with Reservations

By Gail Russell Chaddock writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 21, 2003 | Go to article overview

Congress and Presidents: Often Uneasy Allies in War ; Congress Rallies around Commander in Chief as Military Action Opens, with Reservations


Gail Russell Chaddock writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


As Congress hemmed and hawed, the debate in the Senate became stormy. But in the end, the president was given the authority he needed to lead the nation into battle.

Congress and the war with Iraq? Try 1846, when President Polk launched the Mexican War to ensure the annexation of Texas.

The Constitution divides the war powers between Congress and the president, and there have been occasions when Congress led the charge - but not lately. The Continental Congress directed the Revolutionary War, and an expansionist Congress dragged President McKinley into the war with Spain in 1898.

But the world wars of the 20th century enhanced presidential powers dramatically, and wartime Congresses have had a tough time weighing in ever since. The long march toward war in Iraq is no exception.

For the US Congress, the circle on this war closed months ago, after the House and 77 members of the Senate voted on Oct. 11 to give the president authority to use force in Iraq at a time of his choosing. Despite considerable doubts on Capitol Hill as to this wisdom of this course, it hasn't been seriously challenged since.

"It's really important to understand that 9/11 built a public- opinion floor under President Bush that has no parallel in modern American history," says Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University.

The War Powers Resolution was enacted in 1973 to give Congress a sure voice in whether or not the nation goes to war. With the Vietnam War still in mind, lawmakers wanted to make sure they were never drawn into a war without informed consent again. President Nixon vetoed it, and Congress overrode the veto. But no president since has ever admitted its constitutionality.

Moreover, while such a resolution formally gives Congress the right to withdraw support for a war, it's unlikely that lawmakers would do so. It would look too much like withdrawing support for troops in the field, experts say. That's why, despite growing opposition abroad and a vocal peace movement at home, Capitol Hill has not reengaged the issue of the war since its October vote.

That early vote on the issue is, perhaps, a reaction to the tensions between Congress and the Oval Office in the first Gulf War. …

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