Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Democratic senators this week will face trouble trying to cleanse themselves of the stain left by voting for President Bush's Iraq war resolution. Republican senators who have turned against U.S. military intervention in Iraq are not interested in bailing out Democrats by approving their proposal to repeal the 2002 authorization passed overwhelmingly by Congress.

As Congress returns this week from the year's first recess, authorization repeal is supposed to be attached to the bill containing homeland security recommendations by the 9/11 commission. But Sen. Norm Coleman, who has become prominent among Republican critics of Bush's war policy, told me from his home state of Minnesota that he would oppose the de-authorization and predicted no more than two Republican senators would vote for it.

One of those two Republican senators would have to be Chuck Hagel, who has fearlessly critiqued Bush war policy. But he told me from Nebraska that he would not be inclined to support repeal. If Hagel is lost, Democrats might fall short of the 50 senators necessary for final passage, much less the 60 senators necessary to close off debate. George W. Bush may be an unpopular president fighting an unpopular war, but Democrats are finding it hard to make war policy from Capitol Hill.

Democrats do not cloak the political nature of their efforts. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, participating in a Nevada forum for Democratic presidential candidates last week, exultantly announced his intent to "revoke the president's authority that he was given . . . to go to war [cheers and applause]." The new mantra is not limited to presidential hopefuls who are senators. On the New Hampshire campaign trail, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson called for de-authorization.

De-authorization follows a series of frustrations for Democrats. Biden, having regained the Foreign Relations chairmanship after the 2006 elections, pushed a harshly worded, though non-binding, anti-war resolution that went nowhere. A milder bipartisan measure fell short of 60 votes needed for cloture. Democratic backing for a plan to condition funding Bush's surge of troops dropped off when its sponsor, Rep. John Murtha, bragged that troops in the field "won't have the equipment" under his plan.

As Congress began its break a week ago, Biden and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin looked to events 37 years ago. A 1964 resolution (passed with only two dissenting senators) gave President Lyndon B. Johnson his requested free hand in Vietnam because of a trumped up attack on a U.S. naval vessel in the Tonkin Gulf. It was repealed in 1970 as an amendment to a non-controversial bill.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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