WASHINGTON -- Leading Republican senators and a prominent Democrat called yesterday for an emergency session of Congress to vote on authorizing President Bush to go to war in the Persian Gulf if necessary.
The White House, surprised by a new burst of congressional unrest, quickly rejected the idea as unnecessary.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, said such a session would be justified only if the president actually decided to use force, but he announced that a series of hearings would be held on the gulf crisis in the next several weeks.
The move by the senators, five days after President Bush ordered a huge troop buildup to provide an offensive capability against Iraq, highlighted the growing debate over the president's gulf policy and signs that public support was weakening.
It also increased pressure on the administration to explain more clearly the stakes for the country and the world in the current stalemate, and the implications in Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's continuing to hold on to Kuwait.
As White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater insisted that public support for Mr. Bush's gulf stance remained solid, Secretary of State James A. Baker III said American jobs depended on the outcome.
"The economic lifeline of the industrial world runs from the gulf, and we cannot permit a dictator such as this to sit astride that economic lifeline," he said in Bermuda, where he conferred on the crisis with Canadian External Affairs Minister Joe Clark.
"To bring it down to the level of the average American citizen, let me say that means jobs," Mr. Baker said.
Another senior administration official indicated that public support would not be a decisive factor in the president's decision to launch a military offensive.
"There's a point at which the president has to exercise leadership," the official said.
Calling for a congressional session to be set immediately, Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, a respected Republican voice on foreign policy, said President Bush "has set the United States on a collision course in which Iraq will either withdraw from Kuwait or be forced to do so by military means."
Mr. Lugar, who supports the president on Iraq, said congressional authorization of military action would make clear "the unity and staying power of the American people represented by the votes of their congressional members."
"The clarity and certainty of our American voice is the primary reason that Iraq may leave Kuwait without military confrontation and that American leadership in this crisis will be taken much more seriously by potentially wavering allies," Mr. Lugar said.
It would be "tragic" if Congress voted against the president, Mr. Lugar said, but he added that if Mr. Bush were unable to convince members of the stakes, "it's better to know that now."
Neither Mr. Lugar nor Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., called for a formal declaration of war, but Mr. Dole said he wanted a "declaration of support and a willingness to commit whatever resources it takes to fulfill the mission."
"I think it ought to be put up to the Congress -- put up or shut up," Mr. Dole said.
"And if they say no, well, then they say no. And then the president has to decide whether to go it alone."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., an opponent of the Bush policy, also called for a special session, saying Mr. Bush had put the nation on a headlong course toward war "without giving sanctions a fair chance to work."
Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, "Congress ought to speak on this subject" before any offensive military action.
The White House swiftly dismissed Mr. Lugar's suggestion for a special session as unnecessary.
There is no need for a congressional declaration of war, Mr. Fitzwater said, because "our policy is not to make war; our policy is to seek the peaceful resolution of this matter and the withdrawal of Saddam Hussein."
Mr. Fitzwater also said there was no need for a formal demonstration of congressional support for Mr. Bush's gulf policy because, "We think Congress does support it."
Administration officials acknowledged privately, however, that congressional sentiment did, indeed, seem to have turned. They also admitted that the speed and force of that turnabout had taken them by surprise.
Mr. Fitzwater also insisted that the American people both understood and supported the U.S. mission in the gulf -- even if it means war, despite public opinion surveys that suggest growing ambivalence.
"They've always supported their country in these kinds of equations in the past, and we believe there's every evidence that they support this now," he said.