A majority of House Democrats on Thursday rejected President Bush’s request for blank-check authority to wage war with Iraq, despite the fact that House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, helped draft the resolution and lobbied for its passage.

As expected, the resolution authorizing Bush to order the invasion of Iraq – without a Congressional declaration of war — passed the House and Senate easily in votes late Thursday and early Friday. The Senate approved the resolution by a lopsided 77-23 vote; the House by a somewhat narrower 296-133 margin.

The surprise came in the size of the vote against the resolution. Just weeks ago, when foes of the administration canvassed the House to determine the size of the opposition bloc, they counted just a few dozen firm votes against the administration’s proposal.

Even as Thursday’s vote approached, an “alternative to war” resolution proposed by US Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California, attracted just 39 co-sponsors. The relatively small number of caucus members who had expressed explicit opposition to the resolution before the vote led Gephardt aides to suggest that the minority leader’s outspoken support for the Bush administration’s hard-line position – a stance that made opposing the president’s request more difficult – would be vindicated as a clear majority of House Democrats would join the Republican majority to back the resolution.

But Gephardt, a man whose presidential ambitions are no secret, was not vindicated.

Of 207 House Democrats voting on the resolution, 126 opposed it, while only 81 voted for the measure. “I hope the story today won’t be (that) this is a huge, overwhelming victory for the president of the United States and for war, beacuse it is not,” said Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky, who was one of the first to break with Gephardt on the issue. “I think what we did will surprise some people. This (the larger-than-expected vote against the resolution) is against conventional wisdom that ‘oh, everybody’s going to be with the president.'”

The 126 Democrats who opposed the resolution were joined by one independent member, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, and six Republicans — John Duncan of Tennessee; John Hostettler of Indiana; Amo Houghton of New York; Jim Leach of Iowa; Connie Morella of Maryland; and Ron Paul of Texas.

The House Democrats who opposed the White House and their own caucus leader included Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, D-California, who is also the ranking Democratic member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence; the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, John Conyers, D-Michigan; the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, David Obey, D-Wisconsin; the ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee, Charles Rangel, D-New York; and International Relations Committee members Donald Payne, D-New Jersey; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Cynthia McKinney, D-Georgia; Earl Hilliard, D-Alabama; Bill Delahunt, D-Massachusetts; Gregory Meeks, D-New York; Barbara Lee, D-California; Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon; Grace Napolitano, D-California; and Diane Watson, D-California. They were joined by senior Democratic members such as George Miller, D-California, and James Oberstar, D-Minnesota, who told the House: “Our Constitution entrusts to Congress alone the power to declare war, a power we should invoke with great care on evidence of a clear and present danger to our country. President Bush has asked Congress to cede that power to him, to be wielded against Iraq; at a time of his choosing; with or without United Nations support; in a unilateral, pre-emptive strike, on his own determination of the level of threat Iraq poses to our national security. I will not surrender our constitutional authority.”

Pelosi, the number two Democrat in the House, was equally outspoken in her opposition to the resolution. Rejecting the argument that the president needed maximum flexibility to act quickly against an immediate threat, Pelosi noted that Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet had told Congress that the likelihood of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein launching an attack on the U.S. using weapons of mass destruction is low. “This is not about time,” she said. “This is about the Constitution. It is about this Congress asserting its right to declare war when we are fully aware what the challenges are to us. It is about respecting the United Nations and a multilateral approach, which is safer for our troops.”

Pelosi joined 70 Democrats, Vermont Independent Sanders and Maryland Republican Morella in backing Barbara Lee’s amendment, which spelled out explicit support for the principle that: “the United States should work through the United Nations to seek to resolve the matter of ensuring that Iraq is not developing weapons of mass destruction, through mechanisms such as the resumption of weapons inspections, negotiation, enquiry, mediation, regional arrangements, and other peaceful means.” Lee’s bill was co-sponsored by 18 Congressional Black Caucus members, former House Minority Whip David Bonior, D-Michigan, and Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Dennis Kucinich.

“It is fear which leads us to war,” Kucinich told the House. “It is fear which leads us to believe that we must kill or be killed. Fear which leads us to attack those who have not attacked us. Fear which leads us to ring our nation in the very heavens with weapons of mass destruction.”

Another fear – that of the Bush political team’s determination to make Iraq an election issue for members who oppose the administration – was described by several members as a factor in the timing of the vote and the willingness of House leaders to concede so much of their authority to the president. Rangel went so far as to describe the whole debate as “a diversion that we have been forced to place on the front burner.”

Intriguingly, for all the fears of some Democrats that a “no” vote might be politically risky, at least two of the Republicans who voted with the majority of Democrats in opposition to the resolution face difficult reelection fights this fall. Iowa’s Leach and Maryland’s Morella are among the most endangered Republican incumbents in the country – the former from a midwestern district with vast stretches of farmland, the latter from a Washington suburb. Yet, both broke with the administration to oppose what Leach described as a “resolution (that) misfits the times and the circumstances.”

“As powerful a case for concern as the preparatory clauses of this resolution outline,” explained Leach, “they do not justify authorization for war, particularly absent further Security Council and multinational support.”

In the Senate, one Republican — Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee — voted against the resolution. He joined 21 Democrats and Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords in voting “no.” The Senate foes were led by West Virginia’s Robert Byrd and Massachusetts’ Edward Kennedy, the chamber’s senior Democratic members. They were joined by Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin, D-Michigan; Intelligence Committee chair Bob Graham, D-Florida; and Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont.

Among those voting for the resolution were prospective 2004 Democratic presidential candidates Joe Lieberman, D-Connecticut; John Edwards, D-North Carolina; and John Kerry, D-Massachusetts.

Among senators seeking reelection this year, the only vulnerable incumbent to oppose the resolution was Minnesota’s Paul Wellstone.

“A pre-emptive go-it-alone strategy towards Iraq is wrong. I oppose it,” said Wellstone. “We should act forcefully, resolutely, sensibly with our allies, and not alone, to disarm Saddam. Authorizing the pre-emptive, go-it-alone use of force now, right in the midst of continuing efforts to enlist the world community to back a tough new disarmament resolution on Iraq, could be a costly mistake for our country.”