WASHINGTON -- Congressional leaders urged President Bush yesterday to explore every peaceful option in the Persian Gulf before resorting to force, although the administration is known to believe that the time is fast approaching when a decision about a military option must be considered.
Mr. Bush met with the congressional leadership four days before Secretary of State James A. Baker III is scheduled to travel overseas to consult with allies on the next move in the Persian Gulf crisis. One of the topics on his agenda is a timetable for possible military actions if sanctions do not force Iraqi President Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, sources have said.
The president conferred at an extended, private meeting later in the day with his senior national security advisers.
The session with key members of the House and Senate reflected concerns in Congress over the pace at which the United States may be moving toward a bloody and costly war -- raising the risk of a divide between the White House and Congress as the president and other administration officials appear to be signaling increasing readiness to use force.
The message from the Capitol to the White House, said one well-placed Republican, is, in effect, to put on the brakes and give the efforts to pressure Mr. Hussein through political, diplomatic and economic maneuvers a chance to succeed.
"That is the mood of not only the Congress but the American public," he said. "This is something important for this White House, under siege, to understand. They're hearing it; I'm not sure they're understanding it."
A White House official, meanwhile, expressed concern that what he called "a confluence of events" had fed the appearance that a war fever had blossomed in the White House over the past day or so. These included particularly harsh approaches toward Iraq in public comments by Mr. Bush and Mr. Baker, the United Nations Security Council vote demanding the resupply of Western embassies in Iraqi-controlled Kuwait and the meetings yesterday at the White House.
"It's had a steamroller effect," he said.
That impact was felt when President Bush met for more than an hour yesterday with senior members of the House and Senate, who pressed him to consult on major policy steps, although they offered no clear consensus on which ones to take.
Mr. Bush told his visitors, according to White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, "I will continue to seek your advice and support as we proceed. We must all understand, however, that any such commitment must be hedged, given the unpredictable and dynamic circumstances of this crisis."
Mr. Bush was also quoted as saying, "We will do our best, consistent with our common stake in seeing that nothing is done that would needlessly endanger lives or place U.S. interests in any greater risk."
The Baker trip reflects, in part, the administration's concern about the resilience of the international coalition lined up against Iraq.
The coalition already has withstood more strains than many outside analysts initially thought possible, most recently surviving the pressures caused by the Temple Mount shootings in Jerusalem earlier this month. But the long-term strength of the international assemblage remains in doubt.
At the same time, political analysts are warning that in a prolonged stalemate, the gulf conflict -- already nearing its fourth month -- will become steadily less popular with the U.S. public.
U.S. officials have said that a new sense of urgency has been created not only by the prospect of flagging support if the standoff drags on, but also by the time required to reinforce troops and equipment if a military option is to be taken.
Analysts also note that the next several months are the period of the year most suited to military action in the Arabian desert. By sometime in February, high winds and blowing sand could seriously undercut the U.S. air power advantage.
With the administration unleashing a new burst of stern rhetoric, lawmakers are growing worried that "this is somehow a prelude to immediate military action," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt. "People want to make sure that options are explored."
Sen. William S. Cohen, R-Maine, said he thought that although Mr. Bush's patience was severely strained, the nation did not appear to be "at the near-break point."
But given the long lead time needed to put a full-scale offensive pTC into place, U.S. officials suggested that the decision would have to come soon.
A few weeks after the fierce windstorms begin lashing Saudi Arabia in February, the Moslem holy month of Ramadan begins. If the United States has control over the timing of a war, it would probably want to start considerably before this time for fear of running out of good weather and colliding with Moslem concerns, commanders say.
Having U.S. troops still in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan, meanwhile, is a troubling prospect to some Saudi officials, who fear that Mr. Hussein will use the sentiments arising during a holiday to stir up a new round of anti-Americanism in the Arab world.