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California's Barbara Lee under attack for opposing war powers resolution

Sunday, September 23, 2001

By Peter Carlson, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- "We need to step back," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. "We're grieving. We need to step back and think about this so that it doesn't spiral out of control. We have to make sure we don't make any mistakes."

She was walking down a hallway in the Cannon House Office Building. A plainclothes police officer hovered a few steps away, looking very serious. The Capitol Police began guarding Lee last week because of death threats she received after voting against a resolution authorizing President Bush to use military force against anyone associated with last week's terrorist attacks. The resolution passed 98-0 in the Senate and 420-1 in the House. Lee's was the sole dissenting vote.

"In times like this," she said, "you have to have some members saying, 'Let's show some restraint.' "

Led by her police bodyguard, she moved along quickly, slipping into her office and closing the door behind her. Inside, the phone lines had shut down under an onslaught of calls from all over the country -- many of them irate, some downright nasty.

"We've gotten thousands of calls and thousands of e-mails," she said. "People are very emotional. ... They're frustrated and they're angry."

Lee, 55, normally has a bright smile, but these days she looks sad, worried, harried. She is quick to point out that she voted to condemn last week's attacks and to allocate $40 billion to fight terrorism.

"I'm just as American and just as patriotic as anybody else," she insists.

She doesn't rule out military action, she says, but she voted against the authorization to use force because she opposes giving the president the sole decision on when and where to make war. "I believe we must make sure that Congress upholds its responsibilities and upholds checks and balances. This is a representative democracy, and it's our responsibility."

War, she believes, isn't the most effective way to fight terrorism. "Military action is a one-dimensional reaction to a multidimensional problem," she says. "We've got to be very deliberative and think through the implications of whatever we do."

This isn't the first time Lee has stood alone against war. In 1999, during the crisis in Kosovo, she was the only House member to vote against authorizing President Clinton to bomb Serbia. "I'm not a pacifist," she says, "but I don't believe military action should be the only action we embark on."

Lee represents one of the nation's most liberal congressional districts: California's 9th, which includes Berkeley and Oakland, and was represented by another antiwar dissident, Ronald Dellums, for nearly 28 years. Lee served as Dellums' chief of staff for a decade before she was elected to the California State Assembly in 1990. When Dellums retired in 1998, she won the election to succeed him, and was reelected last year with 85 percent of the vote.

"I would have voted the same way," says Dellums, now president of Washington-based Healthcare International Management.

"I agonized over this vote all week," Lee says. "I searched my conscience. I talked to many people. Ultimately, on some votes, you have to vote the way your conscience dictates."

Her agony was exacerbated by the knowledge that her chief of staff, Sandre Swanson, was mourning the death of his cousin Wanda Green, a flight attendant on the hijacked jet that crashed in Pennsylvania.

"I support her decision," Swanson says. "The principle on which she based her decision was that somebody should stand up and say that only Congress has the power to declare war. ... People say she was unpatriotic. I think it was very patriotic."

"I admire the courage of Barbara Lee," said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who spent the 1960s in the front lines of the civil rights movement. "She demonstrated raw courage to stand up and vote the way she did. She stood alone -- one against 420. Several other members wanted to be there also but at the same time, like me, they didn't want to be seen as soft on terrorism."

Lewis voted to authorize military action but, he says, he came close to joining Lee in opposition. "I was probably 99 percent of the way there in my heart and my soul," he says, "but in the end I wanted to send the strongest possible message that we can't let terrorism stand."

Lee's vote is reminiscent of the first woman ever elected to Congress, Jeannette Rankin of Montana, who voted against the nation's entry into World War I and World War II. It also brings to mind Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening, the two senators who voted against the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which gave President Lyndon B. Johnson the power to wage war in Vietnam.

On the House floor nine days ago, Lee quoted Morse: "I believe that history will record that we have made a grave mistake in subverting and circumventing the Constitution of the United States." She added: "Senator Morse was correct, and I fear we make the same mistake today."

In Oakland, Lee's vote is the subject of much debate, some of it heated, says Don Perata, the Democratic state senator who represents Lee's district.

Perata calls Lee's vote "wrongheaded," and says he isn't impressed with her explanation of it. "There wasn't a lot of clarity there," he says. "I would have cast a different vote. This is a time for a united front in America, particularly in Congress."

But, he predicts, Lee's vote probably won't affect her chances for reelection.

"The district is overwhelmingly Democratic," he says. "There are probably more people who are to the left of the Democrats than there are Republicans.

"Barbara is very popular here. She's just a very, very nice woman -- and in this business that counts for a lot."

On Monday, Perata says, California talk radio was abuzz with callers denouncing Lee as a communist.

"I was wincing," he says, "because that's not Barbara. She did not cast that vote because she's unpatriotic. She loves this country and its opportunities as much as anybody."

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