WASHINGTON -- Key senators of both parties, reflecting growing unease about the Persian Gulf crisis and fear that war could break out with Congress in recess, demanded yesterday that President Bush obtain congressional authorization before launching military action.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III refused to accede to the demand, saying that the president has the constitutional authority to commit forces and that any advance authorization of military action could take away the element of surprise.
He also expressed reservations about a proposed formal mechanism whereby key members of Congress would be regularly kept informed of the administration's actions on the gulf during the coming two-month congressional recess.
The question of congressional authorization dominated a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that at times took on a distinctly dovish tone, with several senators urging that military action, if any, be taken under a United Nations umbrella.
While Congress is always jealous of its powers, the hearing also showed a clear shift in congressional mood from the strong support given President Bush earlier in the gulf crisis.
It coincided with coming congressional elections and recent polls showing an erosion in public support for Mr. Bush's commitment of troops to the Saudi Arabian desert.
"I think there are two themes here," said Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill, who is seeking re-election. "One is [that] the administration has handled this very well up to this point. And the second is real concern about where we go from here."
One senator, Alaska Republican Frank H. Murkowski, even raised the possibility -- dismissed by Mr. Baker -- of a "commercial solution," whereby Kuwait would put a price on the two islands and the oil field sought by Iraq.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., a respected Republican voice on foreign policy, said it was his gut feeling that "there is likely to be military activity" in the Persian Gulf before Congress returns in January.
"In the event we come to that conclusion, Congress ought to come back into session and ought to entertain a declaration of war," he said.
"There ought to be a formal commitment of the American people to share that responsibility with President Bush and yourself because the undertaking will be massive and it must be successful."
While Mr. Baker pledged continued consultation with Congress, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., said, "There's a difference between consultation and authorization." He suggested that, to retain the element of surprise, a declaration of war be voted in advance.
"You can pick the time and opportunity thereafter if you get the proper authorization from the Congress to do it," Mr. Sarbanes said.
Administration officials later rejected this idea, saying they didn't believe any kind of prospective authorization would pass.
Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum, R-Kan., pressed Mr. Baker on seeking United Nations authority for future military moves, something he said the administration was pursuing.
But the secretary rejected her suggestion of putting U.S. troops under a U.N. command.
"We are very concerned about putting the lives of our American men and women over there in the hands of someone other than an American military commander," he said.
The display of congressional worry did not concern top administration officials, who viewed it, as one of them put it, as "congressmen covering themselves before a 10- to 12-week break."
Said another: "They're desperately trying to figure out how to make themselves feel better about recessing."
Questioned about other aspects of the gulf crisis, Mr. Baker agreed with Senator Sarbanes that Saudi Arabia was reaping a "bonanza" from skyrocketing oil prices and indicated that if the crisis drags on beyond this year, the Saudis and other countries will be pressed to increase their contributions to the multilateral effort in the gulf.
Expanding on previous outlines of a post-crisis Mideast security structure, he said that sanctions on Iraq could be maintained until it reduced its weaponry and that a tough non-proliferation regime for the region could include not only Iraq's biological and chemical weapons and nuclear potential, but its conventional weapons supply as well.
In his prepared statement, Mr. Baker said Iraqi aggression must be reversed before other regional problems, such as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, are tackled.
Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., blasted the administration for forging a new strategic relationship with Syria as a result of the gulf crisis, calling President Hafez el Assad "an international gangster, a drug producer, a supporter of terrorists and a possessor of dangerous military equipment."