Jan. 5, 2007 — -- As the new Democrat-controlled House and Senate take power this month, the Iraq war will be the front-and-center issue.
And as President Bush prepares to announce his new strategy for Iraq, which may include a surge in troops, the attitude of the Senate towards the war -- and whether its members regret their overwhelming 77-23 October 2002 vote to authorize the president to use force in Iraq -- is critically important.
ABC News decided to survey the views of the senators who served in 2002, most of whom remain in the Senate. The survey indicates that those senators say that if they knew then what they know now, President Bush would never have been given the authority to use force in Iraq.
It's impossible, of course, to recreate all of the factors, pressures and information that went into this momentous vote. But given that President Bush may next week request that an additional 20,000 or more troops be sent to Iraq -- to fight a war 7 in 10 Americans think he isn't handling well -- we thought it might prove a significant indicator of the support for the war to see where these same senators from 2002 now stand. Regret, after all, may not be a valued commodity in politics, but it is not one that public officials express easily, even with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. That said, a surprising number of senators who voted for the war were willing to say that they, and the Senate, made a mistake.
By ABC News' count, if the Senators knew then what they know now, only 43 -- at most -- would still vote to approve the use of force and the measure would be defeated. And at least 57 senators would vote against going to war, a number that combines those who already voted against the war resolution with those who told ABC News they would vote against going to war, or said that the pre-war intelligence has been proven so wrong the measure would lose or it would never even come to a vote.
For any Senate vote to switch from 77-23 in favor to essentially 57-43 against is quite remarkable, and far more so for a decision as significant as the one to go to war.
The issue was brought home last month by Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., who delivered an emotional address on the floor of the Senate, saying he regretted having voted for the war.
"I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs day after day," Smith said. "That is absurd. It may even be criminal. I cannot support that any more."
Twenty-eight of the 77 senators who voted to authorize the war in Iraq indicated, many for the first time, that they would not vote the same way with the benefit of hindsight. Six others indicated that, in retrospect, the intelligence was so wrong the matter would not have passed the Senate, or would not have even come up for a vote.
"This is very significant," said congressional scholar Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. "If they were asked that question a year ago, I think the likelihood of getting anywhere close to a majority voting against the war would be impossible. What this tells me is that Gordon Smith's very stunning speech was in some ways the tip of the iceberg."
The list of those who say they would vote differently is a bipartisan group whose ranks include former and current Republican Senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois, Bob Smith of New Hampshire, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.
An overwhelming number of the Democratic senators who voted to authorize use of force indicated they would vote differently today, including former and current Democratic Senators Joe Biden of Delaware, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, John Breaux of Louisiana, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
A few former Republican senators gave their answer surprisingly quickly when asked if they would cast the same vote.
"No, I would not," said former Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H. "I know now there are no weapons of mass destruction."
Smith underlines that "everyone thought he had weapons of mass destruction. As far as I know -- and I saw a lot of intelligence, what every other U.S. senator saw -- intelligence briefings indicated that Hussein had WMD that he could use perhaps against Israel or neighboring countries."
"In retrospect, it was premature," said former Sen. Nighthorse Campbell. "We rushed into there, very frankly, we were kind of pushed in. The problem with being a public official is public opinion jams you around. And public opinion then was we had to do something about all the people being abused and tortured and killed."
Moreover, Nighthorse Campbell added, "we were leaned on pretty heavily by the administration," which he said told senators "if you didn't support the president you weren't a good soldier…So we got stampeded into doing something, but unfortunately we didn't have enough international help."
He said that he thinks Saddam Hussein would have necessitated military action sooner or later, but "we should have waited until we got more commitments from more countries."
President Bush has repeatedly said that he believes going to war in Iraq was the right course. As recently as last month, he said that while he has "questioned whether or not it was right to take Saddam Hussein out," he has "come to the conclusion it's the right decision."
But the realities of the war -- the lack of weapons of mass destruction, the insurgency, the sectarian strife -- have caused many erstwhile Senate supporters to change their minds.
"There is a very large level of disheartenment, dismay and despair in Congress cutting across party lines on a situation where they don't see a way out," Ornstein said.
The president, not up for re-election, can try to move forward on his plans for Iraq regardless of public sentiment, Ornstein added.
"But if Lyndon Johnson were alive today, he'd tell the president you can't keep prosecuting a war when the public -- and many of your congressional supporters -- abandon you," he said. "It makes it much, much harder to sustain it."
The results of the ABC News survey told Ornstein that "the policy of surge is going to have trouble sustaining any support inside Congress."
That's not to say the Congress would cut off funding for the troops or the war. But the "day-to-day pressure on the president to revise his policies is going to grow," he said.
With more than 3,000 U.S. troops killed, and thousands of others wounded, to say nothing of the countless dead Iraqi civilians, this is a topic whose sensitivity borders on taboo. To imply in any way that a vote cast in favor of war was a mistake can be misconstrued to mean that honorable troops died in vain.
Apparently for that reason, five senators have come up with a different construct for public consumption. They say that knowing then what we know now, the war resolution never would have even come up for a vote.
That seems to be essentially saying the case for war was, in retrospect, so weak it wouldn't have even deserved an up-or-down vote. When one considers that as many as 43 Senators are standing by their vote, that's an even harsher assessment for a senator to make.
So in this tabulation, ABC News is counting the five senators -- Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; and former Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, as "No" votes.
"The intelligence was obviously wrong," said a Grassley spokeswoman. "If Congress had known the intelligence was wrong, they wouldn't have even been voting."
A spokesman for Dorgan added, "The intelligence information the president used to make the request was not accurate. If we knew then it was not accurate, the president wouldn't have been able to make that request."
"That's a way of trying to evade the question," Ornstein said. "People are very reluctant to say, 'Oh, I made a huge mistake,' or 'I would do it differently today.' That's a hard thing for anyone to do, and far more so for a public official."
But, Ornstein said, that response is "fundamentally the same thing as saying you regret your vote -- if not even more."
One other Senator, Arlen Specter, R-Pa., begged off saying how he individually would vote, but said that knowing then what we know now the Senate would not have voted to go to war.
"I believe that had we known Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, the Congress would not have authorized the invasion of Iraq," he has said, since "we operated on faulty intelligence."
ABC News chose to count Specter as one who with 20/20 hindsight would vote differently. But even not counting his vote, or that of the five senators who regard the intelligence as so weak the matter would not have even been voted on, the war resolution would fail by a vote of 49-51.
Many senators stood by their vote, including Republican Sens. Dick Lugar of Indiana, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, Orrin Hatch of Utah and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, as well as Sens. Joe Lieberman, formerly a Democrat but now an independent from Connecticut, and Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat.
Other senators that had previously expressed such sentiments included former Sen. George Allen, R-Va., and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who has said in retrospect he would still vote for war for "humanitarian" reasons.
In his 2004 speech to the Republican National Convention, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the issue of whether or not Saddam Hussein "possessed the terrible weapons he once had and used, freed from international pressure and the threat of military action, he would have acquired them again."
The war in Iraq remains the right decision, McCain said, because "we couldn't afford the risk posed by an unconstrained Saddam in these dangerous times."
Still other senators -- John Warner, R-Va., George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Blanche Lincoln, R-Ark. -- refused to engage in the hypothetical.
Former Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., told ABC News that "the whole idea of a hypothetical is ridiculous. Hindsight is 20/20. We were voting on the basis of the intelligence information we had and that's why the vote was so overwhelming. And yes, it was certainly faulty intelligence. But we had to vote on what we knew at the time. I just don't understand the value of what you're doing except to embarrass the Bush administration."
In a few instances, the senators' expressions of regret had already been made.
Months ago, Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., both of whom are harboring presidential ambitions for 2008, said they regretted their votes.
At an October Senate debate, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said: "If I knew then what I had known now on the weapons of mass destruction, which was a key reason I voted the way I did, I would not have voted to go into Iraq."
In December, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., also considering a White House run, told NBC's "Today" show that, "obviously, if we knew then what we know now, there wouldn't have been a vote, and I certainly wouldn't have voted that way."
Other senators whose offices directly told ABC News they would vote differently include Democrats Biden, Dodd, Rockefeller, Max Baucus of Montana, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Tom Carper of Delaware, Dianne Feinstein of California, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Bill Nelson of Florida and former Sens. Breaux, Jean Carnahan of Missouri, Max Cleland of Georgia and Bob Torricelli of New Jersey.
Every Democratic senator serving in 2002 who supported going to war and harbors presidential ambitions in 2008, where he or she will need to appeal to anti-war liberal Democrats -- a list that includes Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Edwards, and Kerry -- has said he or she would vote differently.
On the other side of the aisle, current Republicans Smith of Oregon and Snowe were joined by former Sens. Nighthorse Campbell, Fitzgerald, and Smith of New Hampshire.
Senators being senators, their answers were not always the clear cut "yes" or "no" the question might imply.
Daschle, the Senate majority leader at the time, would not directly comment, but a source close to him told ABC News that he would change his vote knowing then what he knows now.
Schumer told ABC News in a statement: "I believe that when the nation is attacked, you give the president the benefit of the doubt. Obviously, if we knew then how badly the president would bungle the war start to finish, we would not have given him the benefit of that doubt, and we certainly wouldn't again."
Schumer's office agreed that it would be fair to include him in the category of those who would vote differently with today's knowledge.
Former Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C., would not answer the question directly, but clearly and repeatedly stated that he only voted for the resolution because of something the president said that Hollings now considers a lie.
Hollings said he was torn, and leaning against voting for the war resolution until President Bush said, just days before the vote, that "we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."
"When the commander-in-chief said that, I knew he knew something I didn't know," Hollings told ABC News. That changed his mind and he voted for the war resolution, a vote he now says was a "mistake"
"I was lied to and now we all know that we were lied to," Hollings said.
Others did not return repeated calls and e-mails -- including former Republican Sens. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Phil Gramm of Texas, as well as former Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia -- so ABC News categorized them as standing by their votes.
Unable to respond were three senators who voted to go to war: Former Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., died in 2003 and both Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Tim Johnson, D-S.D., are medically incapacitated.
David Chalian, Teddy Davis, Z. Byron Wolf, Tahman Bradley and Jennifer Duck assisted with this report.