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Published: Sunday, 2/2/2003

Senator's focus: war and recession

Leaving the studios of WTVG-TV 13 on Friday after taping a segment for the Carty & Company public affairs program, an assistant to U.S. Sen. George Voinovich - the featured guest on the show -handed me two documents.

The papers outlined two subjects about which Mr. Voinovich, a former Cleveland mayor and Ohio governor now beginning the last leg of his first Senate term, is passionate: tort reform and revamping the federal Clean Air Act so midwestern states don't get saddled with the blame and financial responsibility for pollution that drifts eastward.

Unfortunately for Mr. Voinovich, nobody cares about those issues right now. He seems to understand that it is pointless to talk about them. They never came up during our interview.

Rather, war and recession dominated the conversation.

“This President has a lot on his plate,” the senator said, comparing the seriousness of the dangers facing the nation to those that once faced Presidents Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Mr. Voinovich's demeanor was different from that in previous interviews. He exuded serious concern over the threats facing American military forces in the Persian Gulf region, in part because intelligence briefings from Bush Administration officials had him convinced that Iraq's Saddam Hussein is not only in possession of large numbers of chemical and biological weapons, but is anxious to use them.

Some allies - notably Germany and France - have said they do not believe the Iraqi threat is imminent and that armed conflict is not called for yet. They will think differently by the end of this week, the senator said, after Secretary of State Colin Powell briefs the U.N. Security Council Wednesday on what the U.S. knows and how it knows it.

While he said he was pleased President Bush had taken time to pursue diplomatic solutions to get rid of Saddam, it is now all but certain that war is imminent. Administration officials indicate bombs will be blanketing Baghdad by the end of this month. As a new member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, this knowledge weighs heavily on Mr. Voinovich.

He said the Middle East would be a very different place if the Iraqi dictator is deposed and a freer society replaces him. It will be the beginning to a lasting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, who will be resigned to the fact that Israel will exist as a nation for the foreseeable future, Mr. Voinovich said. Once Arab leaders truly understand and accept that fact, the region would be on the road to long-term peace.

Without settling the Iraqi matter, Israel and the Palestinians will remain mired in violence, he added.

It helps that Iraq is a country of means. Revenue from the sale of oil can help rebuild the country and turn it into a leader in the region. Unlike Afghanistan, little U.S. money will be needed to help Iraq get on its feet.

Of course, the senator said, this represents a threat to some nearby countries now run by royalty or religious leaders who fear the widespread hunger for democracy could destabilize their nations.

With an Iraqi war behind us, the American economy will once again sing, he predicted.

“In six months to a year, we will have answers to many questions that now hang over our country and our economy,” Mr. Voinovich said. “The thing that is holding back our economy is uncertainty about the war. Economists and people who work with the [stock] markets tell me that when it's over, this economy is going to take off like a bird. In fact, they say that then the real concern will be over-inflation and rising interest rates.”

Look for Congress to pass all of Mr. Bush's tax proposals except the provision that ends taxation on stock dividends, Mr. Voinovich advised. He said that provision would cost the U.S. Treasury about as much money as all of the other proposals combined, and that the Senate will not go for it, even if the House does.

“What we have to do is find common ground and compromise,” he said, adding that the key is to keep a lid on congressional spending.

“You, as mayor, and I, as mayor and as governor, had to set priorities,” Mr. Voinovich told show host Carty Finkbeiner. “These guys in Congress, all they want to do is borrow money.”

Mr. Voinovich doesn't talk about it, but his staff acknowledged that the prevailing uncertainty comes at a time when the senator is laying the groundwork for a re-election campaign next year.

We didn't have a chance to talk about what a political race against Jerry Springer might look like - war and recession is enough turmoil for now.



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