WASHINGTON -- President Bush quieted yesterday congressional complaints about his dramatic buildup of forces in the Persian Gulf by assuring the lawmakers he has not yet decided to launch a military strike on Iraq, but only wants it to appear a "credible option."
More than a dozen leaders of both sides of the House and Senate emerged from a two-hour session with Mr. Bush saying they agreed with him that there was no reason at this point for Congress to formally consider the question of whether the United States should go to war.
"The policy remains at the moment [to use] our forces there for defensive purposes and to enforce the embargo authorized by the United Nations," said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash. "That, of course, has very, very strong support, bipartisan support in the Congress."
Representative William S. Broomfield, R-Mich., ranking minority member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that calls Tuesday for the convening of an emergency session of Congress to debate the war issue drew no support at yesterday's meeting.
"The feeling was it would be poor judgment to have it right now," he said.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., who had broached the issue of a possible special session with Mr. Bush last week, also came away saying only that it should remain an option to be considered.
But while they repaired the united American front Mr. Bush is eager to present to Iraq, the president and congressional leaders simply postponed their political and constitutional clash over where the power to declare war ultimately rests.
Despite the lawmakers' insistence that Mr. Bush cannot legally take the country into war without first seeking their approval, he made no commitment to do that, according to Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III repeated again yesterday the White House stance that Mr. Bush would not commit himself to any course of action in a situation that was still "hypothetical."
"I think we all departed with a clear understanding of how we've got to continue our debate in this country, but do so in a matter to check politics at the water's edge . . . to make sure that we do not send a mixed signal to [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein," said Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., ranking minority member on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Leading lawmakers started seriously questioning Mr. Bush's gulf
policy after he announced with little warning last week deployments that will nearly double U.S. forces in the area.
Representative Les Aspin, D-Wis., said those concerns stemmed largely from the unexpected size of the buildup as well as from the announcement that there would be no rotation of troops in the gulf region.
"That tells you that you can't let the embargo continue to work for much longer because you can't leave service personnel out there for 18 months or two years," Mr. Aspin said.
Those fears were calmed Tuesday, Mr. Aspin said, when Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said no final decision on troop rotation had yet been made.
While congressional leaders came away from the White House meeting assured that Mr. Bush intends to wait longer for economic sanctions to persuade Mr. Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait, the lawmakers were not able to glean any firm timetable for how long the president was willing to wait.
Mr. Baker left the impression among some legislators he met with later on Capitol Hill that the administration was prepared to wait as long as six months.