WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, insisting that only Congress can declare war, indicated yesterday that he and House Speaker Thomas S. Foley would summon lawmakers back to Washington from their upcoming break if the president decides to launch military action against Iraq.
"It is important to remember that under the American Constitution, the president has no legal authority -- none whatsoever -- to commit the United States to war. Only the Congress can make that grave decision. And in this respect, if the United States is to be committed to war, it requires action by the Congress," Mr. Mitchell said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
The Maine Democrat's comments held out the possibility of a constitutional struggle if President Bush launches a military strike while Congress is out of session.
In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Secretary of State James A. Baker III vowed that the White House would continue consulting with congressional leaders.
But he rebuffed a demand that Mr. Bush obtain congressional authorization before taking military action, arguing that the president, as commander in chief, has the authority to commit forces.
Mr. Mitchell said: "The speaker and I have considered measures which would permit the Congress to reconvene, in the event it becomes necessary, with respect to the Persian Gulf crisis."
He said he could understand the administration's wanting to avoid advance notification of Congress to preserve the element of surprise.
But he said that if Mr. Bush goes to war without seeking congressional authorization, "that will not be consistent with the Constitution, and we strongly urge the president to obey the Constitution, as all of us are required to do."
Congress is due to adjourn soon and not return until January.
Under the War Powers Resolution, the president must file a report to Congress within 48 hours of deploying troops. U.S. forces must be withdrawn after 60 days if Congress has not voted its approval.
In recent conflicts involving the U.S. military, Congress has not insisted on a declaration of war.