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Peace lobbyists push Democrats; Daschle speaks out


The representatives of Pax Christi USA, the Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK, and American Baptist Churches USA had no way of knowing, as they met with an aide to a leading Democratic senator Sept. 25, what was happening on the Senate floor.

Their day had begun at 8:30 that morning. The Rev. Robert Edgar, National Council of Churches general secretary and a former six-term member of Congress, gave the peace lobbyists their charge: “While we may have difficulty stopping the rush to war, we may be able to change the way they think about the [war-authorizing] resolution. We may be able to get enough questions asked to put it off until after the election.” Said Edgar, “It’s important for them to know that we, as people of faith, have something to say.”

The newly minted lobbyists -- more than 100 in total -- then walked across the street to the three Senate office buildings. Among them was Dominican Fr. James Barnett, fatigued but feisty on day 25 of an open-ended fast for peace. Water bottle in hand, he joined the contingent of 10 lobbyists who made the case to a Democratic senatorial assistant in a crowded conference room of the once anthrax-laced Hart Office Building.

As the peace activists were expressing their concerns, Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., took a baby step toward the type of leadership the peace lobbyists were looking for: He lashed out at President Bush, who, in reference to the hotly debated homeland security bill, said Senate Democrats did not care about the nation’s security.

“We ought not politicize this war,” the normally taciturn Daschle bellowed. “We ought not politicize the rhetoric about war and life and death. … You tell those [Democratic senators] who fought in Vietnam and World War II they are not interested in the security of the American people. That is outrageous. Outrageous.”

Meanwhile, in the conference room, Sister of St. Joseph and longtime NETWORK lobbyist Catherine Pinkerton told the Democratic leadership aide: “I wish they would vote their conscience.”

Democrats who ultimately support a war resolution, Barnett said, will have to embrace the arguments of the administration’s two leading hawks, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Vice President Dick Cheney.

The United Nations must be heeded, said the Baptist representative, the Rev. Aidsand F. Wright-Riggins III.

“Is a just war possible?” asked the aide.

“No, no, no,” responded the ecumenical chorus. “Absolutely not,” said one.

The Iraqi regime -- “pummeled” during the Gulf War and weakened by a decade’s worth of sanctions -- “is no threat to its neighbors and certainly not to us,” said Pax Christi USA national coordinator David Robinson.

“We’re angry about the lack of leadership,” said St. Joseph Sr. Mary Elizabeth Clark, also of NETWORK.

They weren’t the only angry ones. The front page of that day’s Washington Post told of “dozens of congressional Democrats … frustrated with their leadership for rushing to embrace President Bush’s Iraqi war resolution.”

The religious groups had strategized before the meeting and developed a two-pronged message: oppose a unilateral U.S. invasion, but support inspections. But what if, the aide asked, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution supporting military action against Iraq? Even then, said several of the antiwar activists, military action would not be justified.

Keeping the Senate -- “the last bastion of progressivism” among the branches of government -- in Democratic control is important, said the aide, implying that opposition to a popular president less than two months before an election could cost the party control of the upper chamber of Congress.

The peace lobbyists did not accept that argument. “You are selling the people of the U.S. short,” said Marie Dennis, director of Maryknoll’s Office of Global Concerns.

The groups plan to keep making their case to Congress over the next few weeks. Among the planned activities is an Oct. 11 “citizen’s hearing,” where opponents of war with Iraq will voice their opinions -- hoping, against the odds, that Congress will listen.

National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 2002