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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 May, 2003, 21:36 GMT 22:36 UK
US Congress set to honour Blair

By Steve Schifferes
BBC News Online, Washington

Tony Blair (left) and George W Bush
Tony Blair has stood by President Bush over Iraq

The US Congress is set to honour UK Prime Minister Tony Blair with its highest civilian honour.

The Congressional Gold Medal was first struck to honour the first US President, George Washington, for his services in the Revolutionary War of Independence against Great Britain..

Now Tony Blair is set to become the first Briton since Sir Winston Churchill to receive such an honour.

There have only been 17 foreign recipients of the medal, including such figures as Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, and Pope John Paul II.

Among the other US recipients are General Douglas MacArthur and Colin Powell.

Prime Minister Blair has gone beyond friendship to demonstrate true leadership for his nation and for Europe
Senator Elizabeth Dole

The move is in recognition of Mr Blair's support for the US in the war on Iraq.

In its resolution, the US Congress says that "Prime Minister Tony Blair has clearly demonstrated, during a very trying and historic time for our two countries, that he is a staunch and steadfast ally" and cites his "outstanding and enduring contributions to maintaining the security of all freedom-loving nations."

Fulsome praise

In its first legislative test in the Senate, the Senate Banking Committee unanimously approved the resolution on a voice vote.

This medal attempts to capture for historical keeping what most Americans already feel in their hearts: Tony Blair is a hero.
Representative Richard Baker

It will now go the Senate floor, where it is assured of passage, with 75 out of the 100 Senators already sponsoring the bill.

Senator Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, who initiated the legislation, said that the prime minister deserved credit for sticking to his principles despite the political risks at home.

"With steadfast and unwavering resolve, he has held firm to his principles without regard to, indeed in spite of, the shifting political winds... Prime Minister Blair has gone beyond friendship to demonstrate true leadership for his nation and for Europe."

And the chairman of the committee, Senator Richard Shelby, said that "it would have been relatively easy for Tony Blair to take a less difficult course. Great leaders recognise those critical junctures where politics must take a back seat to the greater interests of the nation and the world."

The bill is also proceeding through the House of Representatives, where its sponsor, Representative Richard Baker, said:

"This medal attempts to capture for historical keeping what most Americans already feel in their hearts: Tony Blair is a hero."

Closest ally

The praise was echoed by both Republicans and Democrats on the committee, with democratic Senator Paul Sarbanes warning that the medal should only be given sparingly to those who truly deserve it.

Mr Blair's steadfast support of Mr Bush, during a time when the US felt let down by many of its traditional allies both in Europe and the Americas, has made him enormously popular in the United States.

His appeal spans both conservatives who believe that he is able to express the coalition's war aims more convincingly than its leader, and liberals who believe he has been a moderating force on Mr Bush's foreign policy.

The UK is widely credited with convincing Mr Bush to renew the Mid-East peace process , and recently to release or charge those held as terrorists at Guantanamo Bay.

Visiting Britain last week, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said: "The 'special relationship' between the US and the UK is stronger than ever, and Americans are the better for it."

And President George W Bush has bestowed the relationship with Mr Blair with his own symbolism, inviting him several times to Camp David and to his ranch in Crawford Texas - a trip, he has made clear, which is reserved for only the closest allies. .

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